In the U.S., Paralympic Athletes Might As Well Be “Untitled”

9 Sep



The Paralympics end today after a week of what seemed to be decent coverage, though it depended on where you tried to watch them.  The host country allotted 150 hours of coverage to the Games, Australia clocked in 100 hours, and Germany and France allotted 65 and 77 hours respectively.  Meanwhile, the United States broadcast a whopping five and half hours and no live coverage at all, as per tradition.  Yay.

Considering how little attention was afforded the Games themselves, it is unsurprising that there was little dialogue stateside about disability rights and issues of equality.  What a missed opportunity.  The British media immersed itself in it, with articles like “Is it Ok To Call The Athletes Brave?”  Indeed, disrespectful attitudes toward people with disabilities today are more often implicitly patronizing than openly derisive, and it was pleasing to see the public address this.

The Paralympic Guide to Reporting that was handed out to media outlets brought up several interesting points about language.  It rightfully asserts that disabling conditions or features should not be turned into personal nouns that define the entire person or people in question: i.e., the disabled, the blind, a paraplegic.  Adjectives and verbs—a paraplegic athlete, athletes with disabilities—are less limiting, portraying a medical condition as one of many characteristics a person has.  (This has been repeated to me ad infinitum by a friend who’s uncomfortable whenever I refer to myself as a dwarf.  “You are Emily.  You have dwarfism!” he insists.  “And you have hazel eyes and freckles and long hair…”)  Other terms and phrases to avoid noted by the guide include:



wheelchair bound

confined to a wheelchair

suffers from

afflicted with

victim of

The last three are commonly used today.  They’re problematic because they imply that a disability is always regrettable.  Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  Suffering may have been an apt term for my achondroplasia two months ago, when severe lumbar pain made it hard for me to think of anything else during a sightseeing trip in England.  But suffering has nothing to do with all the ways in which my condition has brought me in contact with all sorts of unique people and places and outlooks.  I can’t imagine my life without it.  It’s my version of normal.  Unless the patient specifically says otherwise, any assumption that a disability is a round-the-clock tragedy is wrong.

For the sake of splitting hairs, I sometimes think the words disabled and disability are problematic because they automatically draw attention to what a person cannot do.  In the worst case, they can sound pitiful.  I’m very fond of the word typical in lieu of normal or able-bodied because it highlights that the standard by which we group people is based on a body type chosen by the scientific community.  It implies medical averages, not social values.  Typical is used in everyday speech to mean “usual” at best and “unexciting” at worst, unlike normal, which implies a state of correctness worth striving for, like in the phrase “back to normal.”  Discussions of autism and some other psychiatric conditions now commonly use the term neurotypical to refer to people without the diagnoses.  Maybe physiotypical could someday be the term for non-disabled people.

But as I’ve said a few times before, the search for acceptable terms is not about deciding what automatically classifies a speaker as Tolerant or Bigoted.  Words are only half as important as the intentions behind them, and the desire to understand another’s perspective is what separates an empathic person from a selfish one.  In the recent words of Professor Charles Negy, “Bigots… never question their prejudices.”  

The above list of do’s and don’ts is probably disconcerting to some readers.  I always feel simultaneously inspired and confused when given a list of hot-button words I’m told to avoid from now on.  Hell, I’ve written the word able-bodied before, and I’m someone excluded by it.  I find no problem with the word handicapped—I had handicapped housing rights in college and a handicapped parking sticker during my limb-lengthening procedures—but it’s considered offensively archaic in the U.K., apparently similar to invalid or cripple.  As we’ve seen in the midget vs. dwarf vs. LP debate, rarely is there ever a consensus in a given community over labels.  Labels are almost always problematic.  In my experience, the dialogue always matters more than the conclusion it comes to. 

And the inability of the U.S. media to have such dialogue during the Paralympics was pitiful.




8 Responses to “In the U.S., Paralympic Athletes Might As Well Be “Untitled””

  1. QoB September 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Have you seen Channel 4’s post-show programme “The Last Leg”? It was presented by a comedian with a disability (Adam Hill) and its co-presenters and guests were most often people with disabilities and Paralympic athletes (plus one ‘token typical’).

    Article on it here:

    Available for viewing here, I think:

    • Emily Sullivan Sanford September 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      Thanks for the links! Unfortunately, I can’t watch the video here in Germany, but I’m dying to after having read the article.

  2. mummpei September 10, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

    Having the conversation is much more important than being “correct”, especially because most terms pick up emotional value overtime. For instance, “normal” is derived from “norm” which means the average, but normal has come to have an implication of “the way it should be”. I wonder if in 10 years “typical” will remain relatively neutral.

  3. Colleen September 25, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    I had a metro cop call me “handicapped” the other day as I got on the bus with my cane. It was meant with good intent, but it definitely rubbed me the wrong way – over here in the US the PC term is “disabled” or, even better but rarely used, “differently-abled.”

    I like the latter because it recognizes that everyone has different abilities; some “disabled” folks actually have abilities that are better than physiotypical folks (BTW, I like that word 🙂 and vice-versa. Like some folks who are blind have better hearing, smell, touch, and/or taste than folks with full sight. Christine on Master Chef proved she is indeed differently-abled, and not dis-abled, because her palate is superb!

    • Emily Sullivan Sanford September 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      Indeed! “Differently-abled” reminds me of a wheelchair basketball game that was held at the rehabilitation center where I lived for a summer. A professional team challenged the hospital staff to a game and spotted them 100 points before the start – the staff still lost miserably, much to their patients’ amusement.

    • Stalking Sarah December 10, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

      More and more, I’m trying to use more specific words when describing people’s abilities. I.e., she needs help getting on the bus because she uses a cane. Or, he can’t get to the 2nd floor because he uses a wheelchair and there isn’t an elevator. I’m finding that talking about the situation rather than describing the person as handicapped (etc) is (I think) less othering. I’ll even use it with myself, i.e., “because I’m married to a woman, xyz.” Rather than “because I am a lesbian.” In whatever instance where it’s relevant, my lesbianism is usually much less relevant than the specific fact hat I am married to another woman.

      In all cases, I think it helps me be more matter of fact and (hopefully) helps normalize (or at less, lessen the other-ness) of the individual.

      (Hopefully this all seems relatively articulate… I have not finished my morning coffee yet!)

      • Emily Sullivan Sanford December 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

        Agreed! It’s not always easy, but a friend long ago pointed out the many pitfalls of labels and through example showed me how much better verbs sound than nouns. (“You’re Emily. You HAVE dwarfism.”)

        Jay Smooth also brilliantly describes the importance of using verbs instead of nouns when calling someone out for something they said that was xenophobic:

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