What is wrong with the media in this world? Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
, advocates have been beseeching the media and the general public to use appropriate language whenever describing people with disabilities. It is very irritating when almost any article referring to disability or wheelchairs reverts back to the outmoded language of decades ago. It is even more irritating when that language originates from people with disabilities or the organizations that serve us.
It would take several pages to point out the many instances where the word "handicapped" still rears its ugly head. Whether lingering on older parking signs, in the volumes of laws at the state and federal level that have yet to be updated or referred to on a regular basis by those who are advocates for more "handicapped" parking spaces, the old language refuses to fade away. Those who are pushing for positive change are not immune when it comes to reverting back to the outmoded language. A National Public Radio (NPR) story
from July 7th about the introduction of an updated version of the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) that has been adopted in parts of New York uses the word handicapped in both the headline and in the story itself.
The pace of change when it comes to the eventual demise of that language is maddeningly slow, but that is not the most annoying example when it comes to outmoded phrases describing us and our lives. That same NPR story was introduced on Facebook® with a subtitle
that refers to the ISA figure as "wheelchair-bound." No matter how closely I examine that figure, or the one it replaced, I can find no evidence that there are any ropes, tape or other materials binding the stick figure "user" to the chair.
During the 25-plus years that I have been a wheelchair user, at no time has it been necessary to bind me to one of those conveyances. My peers and I usually count on gravity as the main force holding us in these devices, with a little added security provided by seat belts, chest straps and perhaps something to keep our feet from unexpectedly kicking off the foot supports. Even with those levels of securement, we all leave our chairs behind when we go to bed at night. Some people travel in and out of their chairs during the day as well, to transfer into vehicles, to the toilet, and perhaps even to a chair that is more comfortable.
Based on my past experience, I know that hardcover books are bound
, some people are bound
for glory, others are bound
to fail (or succeed), accidents are bound to happen and some of my blogs are bound
to put people to sleep if they try to read them in the evening. However, wheelchair users are not bound
to their mobility devices.
Note that the word bound
does not always mean tied up in a manner that prevents escape, but it seems to when referring to wheelchairs and those who use them. Some animals, like kangaroos, rabbits and mule deer, bound
when they run. Families wanting to toughen up their kids often send them to a camp called Outward Bound
, where they learn teamwork and a variety of outdoor survival skills. Despite being given opportunities to learn that the "wheelchair-bound" term is inappropriate, all types of media continue to use it. The National Disability Rights Network
has made it easy for writers and editors to learn the right terminology, through the publication of their guidelines: Reporting And Writing About Disabilities
. I would like to be able to say that it is just the mainstream media that don't understand the importance of this but, once in awhile, terms like wheelchair-bound and handicapped show up in articles and newsletters published by disability organizations too.
A couple of frustrating examples of media misuse of language have recently occurred in articles about an individual who is anything but bound
to her wheelchair. Angela Madsen
is paraplegic, has won numerous medals at the Paralympics Games, became one of the first women to row nonstop around Great Britain, has rowed across the Indian and Atlantic oceans, and recently was thwarted by violent storms in her attempt to row from California to Hawaii by herself.
Forced to abandon her boat and seek rescue, her rowboat was recently found and returned
to her. The writer of the news article was doing great, until it became time to describe Ms. Madsen's disability. In that and in an earlier article about her exploits, both writers found it necessary to insert the term "wheelchair bound" despite having stated earlier that she was paraplegic
. Why use that term, when she is clearly not restricted, or bound, to her wheelchair?
Am I being hypercritical or too picky? Maybe, but I don't really think so. The media has not used terms considered derogatory toward racial groups for many years, and it is long past time to clean up their act when it comes to disability terminology.
© 2013 Michael Collins