Towards a Disability-Friendly Media Language

Imadeddine Raef & Jana El-Husseini

Houria F., a 22-year-old girl from Arsal was born with physical disability.

During her educational academic journey, the young girl with disability faced many barriers with her teachers and classmates. These barriers were resulted from social cultural attitudes toward persons with disabilities and their abilities, but despite of all of that, Houria successfully completed her Intermediate stage, she wanted to be a nurse but access and registration problems in the Lebanese vocational and Technical educational system were blocking her way to success.

After many efforts, Houria was able to be enrolled in “Arsal Technical Institute”, in which the challenges were doubled. Teachers categorically rejected to receive a leaner with disability with learners without disability, while her classmates dealt in a very inappropriate way, using harsh language and expressing their shame of being the classmates of a girl with disability. Also, they refused to assist her, but despite all challenges, Houria successfully managed and completed her vocational education.

Today, Houria has only one step left to get her Nursing degree, but she can’t since practical hospitals are not available in Arsal, and she is unable to pay for transportation and accommodation expenses in any other place, and even if the expenses were covered, this practical stage requires further cooperation from teachers and classmates. Will Houria be able to get her degree? Will the dream of her life with no available resources be achieved?

Many of us, are Houria, trying to achieve our dreams, however, we are still facing double discrimination by the society, due to our gender and disability.

Generally, Social stereotype attitude towards people with disabilities is still the hostage of the so-called medical model of disability, which views disability as a ‘problem’ that belongs to the individual with disability. Moreover, these attitudes didn’t reach yet the social model of disability which draws on the idea that the society is disabling people, through designing everything in order to meet the needs of the majority of people without disability, and this model was referred to it as one of UNCRPD goals.

Language is the Dress of Thoughts

The traditional response to disability, often called; the medical model of disability which refers to disability as personal tragedy and many people with disabilities are seen and judged based on this medical model. Moreover, people with disabilities are expected to be responsible for their own disability and manage their own challenges.

The medical model of disability is characterized by the exclusion and mobilization within the medical or residential institutions which enhance the exclusion of persons with disabilities from their community. From this point of view, disability is a tragedy and people with disability are to be pitied. Moreover, the model views PWD as individuals who are in need for “treatment or care” with the assumption that he/she is “abnormal” and being “abnormal” meaning that you are “unwelcomed”, in which people with disabilities are still unable to enjoy their basic rights.

While the social model of disability doesn’t consider the human biological needs are the causes of ‘disability’, but sees it as a result of the interaction between people with disabilities and social, cultural, economic, and environmental barriers. Disability therefore is socially constructed on behavioral barriers, such as prejudices attitudes which Houria was facing, in addition to institutional barriers imposed by laws and policies, economical barriers that excluded persons with disabilities, and environmental barriers which prevented physical accessibility to information and communication.

Our Expressions reflect our Politics

The story of Houria will often be tackled by the media as the story of heroine who challenged the negative stereotypic attitude (the disabled hero), or may be the focus will be on her last step where she had no access to complete her degree (the pitied perspective) and probably some media shows will present Houria’s story in occasions and holidays which will increase donations (occasions perspective), or the story can be totally ignored.

Media plays an essential role toward enhancing the social model vs. medical model of disability. This should be achieved through mainstreaming and selecting an appropriate terminology to describe people with disability, we as Journalists should carefully consider the usage of disability-friendly language.

Lebanese people with disabilities have worked hard on their individual and collective rights, and they sought to change the discriminatory language to a disability-friendly inclusive language.

See attached table:

  1. The term “disabled” is a description and not an individual, we recommend using ‘person with disability ‘instead of ‘disabled’ or ‘special needs’. We use a ‘person first language’ in all written and verbal communication which means we acknowledge the person before her/his disability.
  2. We avoid phrases like ‘paralyzed ‘or ‘crippled ‘or ‘invalid’ or ’blind’ or ’deaf’ or ’Mongol’, or ’retarded’. All these terms are very disrespectful for persons with disabilities, as well as the term ‘disabled’ is often used as offence.
  3. We avoid phrases like ‘May God bless, heal you and give you hope!’, ‘what a pity’…
  4. We avoid using disability related terms to describe any economic or political absence like ‘paralyised economic situation’, ‘amputated government’, also avoid phrases like ‘the dialogue of the deaf’, ‘deaf during a wedding party’, ‘a one-eyed person is a king among the blinds’ and many other negative phrases.
  5. We avoid using the medical terms which are based on person’s disability or stereotypic perspective like ‘patients’ or ‘having bad health conditions’
  6. People with disabilities are not victims either. We do not use expressions like ‘suffers from disability’, which refer to the state of being in pain or hopelessness.
  7. We avoid using expressions that reflect isolation, suffering, anger, and negative perspective related to needs of persons with disabilities.
  1. Equally, we recommend not using the expression ‘confined to a wheelchair’. A wheelchair is not confining, it provides mobility to people who can’t walk. A person ‘uses a wheelchair’ or is a ‘wheelchair user’.

 Most people with disabilities are comfortable with the words used to describe their daily living. People who use wheelchairs 'go for walks'. People with visual disabilities may be very pleased - or not - 'to see you'. Disability may just mean that some things are done in a different way.  

We avoid using words or pictures to describe negative victims, we recommend using a respectful language in which it introduces people with disabilities as active individuals who are able to manage their own lives.

We avoid the tragedy description of certain disability needs; those needs should be described as a part of the additional needs.

The use of any certain words or phrases can express the pitifulness of the audience toward people with disabilities, and this doesn’t reflect the inclusion and rights culture.

We must avoid any content or program that focus on disability as a ‘problem’, however, we should introduce people with disabilities as active participants in the public, social, and political life, with the focus on the positives and the clarification of removing the barriers as well as meeting the needs of all, in which we are able to build an inclusive and comprehensive respectful society.