what's in a word?


Assumptions about disability are dangerous. So too is language. People with disabilities are not "handicapped" - though the physical and attitudinal barriers placed in our way daily by an uncaring society, and fuelled by a deeply prejudiced media, handicap us. We are people first. Our difference is our disability. A typical response from certain journalists when someone with a disability makes the news is to focus on the disability; the "handicap" adds a bit of extra spice to the story.

The language will then follow a predictable pattern which is not simply offensive and insulting to people with disabilities, but becomes easy and acceptable cliches.

Media outlets also use pejorative phrases that have now become commonplace; "lame duck", "as deaf as a post", "turning a blind eye to . . ." or "crippling taxation" are terms that pander to society's complacency.

Then there are, of course, the more offensive terms that are used to describe what doesn't meet the media's (and therefore society's) criteria for perfection - lunatic, cripple, hunchback, dwarf, deaf and dumb etc. Apart from being highly insulting, they are grossly inaccurate.

Those working in the media must stop using emotive terms which serve only to patronise - and elicit the condescension of the public. That means an end to words such as afflicted, victim, poor, courageous, pathetic, helpless, brave and tragic. With a bit of forethought, and a will to change the habits of a lifetime, the media can play a positive role in changing attitudes that feed false assumptions about disability.

Disabled people seeking access to the media can face physical obstacles, too. The Irish Times, which occupies relatively old premises in the centre of Dublin, is full of small steps, narrow stairs and corridors. When the company added a new, fifth floor of the building to accommodate the "caseroom" and engraving departments this year, it could not extend the existing lift to that floor, because the top of the lift shaft would then have violated Dublin Corporation planning limits on the height of structures in the area. So the new caseroom, which is used by a significant number of printers, journalists and advertising staff, is highly inaccessible to disabled people who might want or need to reach it.