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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January, 2005, 10:29 GMT
Pitfalls to avoid in disability news
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website disability affairs correspondent

One of the BBC's disability affairs experts looks at the traps that some journalists need to avoid when reporting the subject.

A disabled parking bay
Access issues for disabled people are important, publicity stunts less so

Fear is probably the emotion I most commonly associate with other people's attitudes to disability.

Journalists are certainly not immune: many of them are so frightened of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong word and causing offence that they get themselves all tied up in knots.

And the more you worry about not offending someone the more likely you are to end up doing so.

Sound advice

The BBC Producers' Guidelines - the bible for all of us who write scripts or articles or make programmes for the BBC - contain some very sound advice on the reporting of disability.

The guidelines talk about being "sensitive to the rights and dignities of disabled people", and advise that "people with disabilities should not be patronised".

We are told to avoid thinking about disabled people in terms of "brave heroes" or "pitiable victims".

The first minefield that the hapless journalist must venture into is language. How should people be described?

While disabled people in the UK take offence at being described as handicapped, it's a term that's liberally used in the US
Geoff Adams-Spink

The first thing might be to ask whether referring to a person's disability at all is relevant to the story.

Access to shopping and leisure facilities - almost certainly yes.

But a quick comment on food preferences or reaction to the latest rise in interest rates - probably not.

Aside from the words that we all know have been used to insult people - and it's pointless repeating them here - there are some very basic dos and don'ts.

It's "people with disabilities" or "disabled people" rather than "the disabled".

By the way, the same goes for "the blind", "the deaf", "the mentally ill", "the poor" or "the elderly".

When we speak of people's impairments it's best to say that they "have", rather than "suffer from" cerebral palsy, epilepsy, etc.

People "use" wheelchairs rather than being "confined" or "bound" to them.

Deaf people who don't speak are "deaf-sign language" or "British sign language" users, they're not "deaf-mute" or "deaf and dumb".

Highly-charged terms

And there is a host of negative and highly-charged terms that refer to people with mental health problems.

Woman holding head in hands
The BBC is very careful about the terminology it uses for mental health

A journalist needs to very sure of their ground before they describe anyone as "psychotic" or "schizophrenic".

The list could go on and over time terms that are "in" or "out" will change.

And while disabled people in the UK will take offence at being described as "handicapped", it's a term that's liberally used in the US.

As to what constitutes good or bad reporting of disability, the BBC's advice about avoiding the heroes and victims is pretty much what informs my approach.

I tend to ask myself how many people will be affected by a particular story, and that usually rules out what I refer to as "disability stunts".

So I'm much more likely to look at stories about how new technology is giving people greater access to the printed word, or why so many disabled people are unable to park easily at their local supermarket.

The watchword for good disability reporting should be "inclusion"
Geoff Adams-Spink

I get much less excited about why a particular individual is doing something "extraordinary", usually in the name of publicity.

Remember that advice about stories not being patronising? Well how much more patronising could you be than to do a story about a disabled person but instead speak to their parent, sibling, teacher, doctor or social worker?

Unless there is a very good reason preventing someone from communicating with you, disabled people usually want to speak for themselves.

And that also means not relying too heavily on large charities who claim to speak on behalf of people with particular impairments.

Often disabled people complain that when the media spotlight falls on them, it's as though the journalist is talking about a far away country of which they know little.

There are more than 10 million disabled people in the UK so the watchword for good disability reporting should be "inclusion".


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