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Empty wheelchair (stokkete/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Empty wheelchair (stokkete/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Public editor: Why journalism must be careful about health and gender Add to ...

Psycho, schizo, retarded, vegetable – there are all sorts of words that can, or should, make us cringe when used inappropriately. They are dated at best; at worst, truly hurtful.

Everyone should strive to keep their language current and respectful, but it is especially important that journalists do so. People reporting, analyzing and commenting on the news cannot appear out of date or insensitive. Not when what they say and how they say it can have such an impact.

The need for vigilance is constant because even inadvertent miscues can cause problems. For example, a recent story about taxes on tampons noted that such products also are used by some “transgender.” An editor tried to clarify the point by specifying transgender women; The Globe published a correction, noting that we should have said “transgender people.”

Confusion like this is one reason that the organization GLAAD, which works “to ensure accurate and diverse representations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people” tries to increase awareness by reminding journalists that transgender is an adjective, not a noun, and that, when possible, transgender people should be asked how they would prefer to be described.

Increased awareness has also had an effect on mental-health issues, drastically reducing the use of such derogatory terms as psycho, schizo and retarded. Even in a historical context, they can seem out out of place.

For example, some readers were uncomfortable with this passage in a recent story about a man who lost his ability to move, speak, hear and see, only to regain it years later: “Strapped into a wheelchair, he was viewed by the world around him as a vegetable, a shell of the boy he once was.”

Even used in a sympathetic story and in reference to the distant past, “vegetable” stands out.

Should troublesome terms simply be outlawed?

Lawrence Carter-Long, a U.S. communications specialist and disability advocate, says no. “I’m not one for banning much of anything – I’d rather we talk about what words are used and why,” he told me in an e-mail. “That said, if you want to avoid unnecessary headaches, I’d say words like spastic should probably be avoided, as should archaic phrasing like retarded.”

He’d also add invalid, wheelchair-bound and crazy to the list because “using them creates more problems than anyone wants or needs [and] sounds out of touch, like something out of the 1920s.”

Even attempts to be understanding can go astray. “Phrases like ‘special needs’ just make it worse,” Mr. Carter-Long says, because they “foster an assumption that there’s something ‘special’ about wanting an education. Or a job.

“Bottom line? A need isn’t special if other people can take the same thing for granted.”

He says one positive approach is to put “people first” (refer to “a boy who is blind” rather than “a blind boy”) so that the disability doesn’t define the person. But now that, too, seems to be changing.

Emily Ladau, a disability-rights advocate in New York State, says she prefers the opposite approach. “My disability is simply another part of my identity, in the same way I am female and Jewish,” she explains. “Disability is simply a state of being – not something that should cause shame.”

In fact, Ms. Ladau finds “a deep sense of pride” in having been born with a rare bone-and-joint disorder, “because it did indeed shape my life and define much of who I have become. Disability is not a derogatory word.”

There are lessons here for journalists: Be accurate and sensitive when describing people.

“We should respect the words that people choose to name themselves, recognizing that we need to clarify the intentions behind them,” writes Louise Kinross, editor of Bloom, published by Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto. “Ask people why they choose certain words – don’t just assume that you know what’s intended, which is what I used to do.”

There are caveats, however.

As well as exhibiting care and respect, journalists must be honest and precise. Although their language should be up to date, they can't resort to jargon, such as “differently abled.” Sometimes you need a clear description of the condition.

Finally, headlines must be brief and to the point – they can’t always be as sensitive and comprehensive as the article itself.

Still, the public has a right to expect a higher standard from journalism. It is, after all, the first draft of history.

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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