Beyond the R-Word

This summer, I edited a language style guide for journalists who cover disability. It was one of the toughest assignments of my career.

I spent the summer with my nose in the dictionary — rifling through medical journals, Googling the history of words, jotting down notes.

And clapping my hand over my own mouth several times a day.

I’ve been a journalist for nearly 30 years and the mother of a child with Down syndrome for 15, so in a lot of ways the assignment to update the style guide for the National Center on Disability and Journalism put me in my sweet spot.

And yet, by the end of the summer, I found myself souring on words in general, barely able to get a sentence out for fear of saying something offensive.

It wasn’t the first time. After my daughter Sophie was born I had a lot to think about, including my own vocabulary. I’d spent pretty much my entire adult life in newsrooms. Journalists — at least, the ones I’ve hung around — are not known for politically correct language. I once complimented my boss on a column in which he wrote off state lawmakers as “mouth breathers.” But after Sophie was born, I was the one asking another writer to stop using the word retarded in staff meetings.

He refused.

I told him to fuck off, but the truth is that I understood. Freedom of speech is the hallmark of the trade, our constitutional right. It’s all that matters, right?

Not really, as it turns out. I went home and watched my baby breath. Out of her mouth. I felt sick.

For years, I worked with a really nice guy who wore a baseball cap stitched with “lamebrain” in big letters. Tee shirts, too. It turns out he and some friends own a skateboard/clothing line. That’s the name of the company, lamebrain. Every time I passed him in the hall, I’d picture Sophie and wince.

By then, most people had stopped using the word retarded around me. But as I learned when I thought hard about what it actually means to have a “lame” brain, or looked up the IQ points originally assigned to the terms imbecile and idiot, or struggled with the correct terminology to describe a friend who uses a wheelchair, it’s about more than the “r-word,” just as the discussion of ethnicity and language reaches far past the “n-word.”

And so when I was invited to join the board of directors of the National Center on Disability and Journalism, I accepted, even though I’d always refused membership in any organization on the grounds that it might affect my objectivity as a journalist.

Who was I fooling? There was no way I could be objective on this topic.

Then came the assignment to edit the style guide, which includes hundreds of terms both acceptable and not. Again, I paused. I thought about Kristin Gilger. Gilger is the director of the NCDJ and senior associate dean at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where the organization is housed. She’s also a badass journalist and the one who gave me this assignment.

As I’ve heard Gilger say more than once, the idea behind the style guide isn’t to be the language police, but instead to give journalists suggestions that will give their work more impact. I thought of how many times I had avoided covering disability-related issues over the years for fear of writing the wrong thing, much as I was afraid to reach out to shake the hand of a man with quadriplegia, for fear of embarrassing myself by putting us both in an awkward situation.

I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I started with A — for “able-bodied,” a term that sounds okay but, as it turns out, is often considered insulting. I got stuck in the Ds; for a while, “differently-abled” seemed better to me than “disabled.” After all, “dis” means “not.” Why would someone want to be called “not abled” when “different” sounds so much better?

Turns out, it sounds better to me. But not to a lot of people who feel that “different” is condescending, while “disabled” is honest.

I had a lot to learn. I took NCDJ’s advice and asked people with disabilities how they’d like to be referred to, and when there was disagreement, I said so in the entry on that particular word. There’s a movement to reclaim “cripple,” but not by everyone. Generally speaking, “people-first” language is preferred these days. My daughter is a “girl with Down syndrome” — don’t call her “Down syndrome girl.” But there are some in the autism community who find people-first language offensive. Please, call them autistics.

I spent the summer thinking about disability in dozens of ways I never had, as I ticked through each term in the style guide, parsing different terms for hearing impairment, hearing loss, people who are hard of hearing. I re-read Elizabeth McCracken’s excellent “The Giant’s House,” a novel about an eight-foot tall man in a small town in the 1950s who is invited to join the circus, and flipped back to the F’s to add the word freak.

Several times a day, I caught myself and others using language that used to seem just fine.

“Don’t be an idiot.”

“He seems kind of spectrum-y.”

“That’s crazy.”

Words haunted my dreams. I woke up in the middle of the night wondering, had we included Asperger’s in the guide? Was “albino” ever acceptable, or is it always albinism? (It’s always albinism, I was told by several sources.) I followed every word-related debate I could find on Twitter.

Finally, I got to W for wheelchair user (never wheelchair-bound). Summer ended and I turned in the guide, but I’ve continued to worry. What did I leave out? Will we offend someone? After several rounds of edits the guide went live on NCDJ’s web site this week, so I guess we’ll find out soon.

As for me, I know I still have a lot more to learn. For the most part, I’ve grown accustomed to my internal editor, the one that leaves me searching for words better than stupid. So far, I say “ridiculous” a lot.

And yes, the 2018 update of the National Center on Disability and Journalism Style Guide includes an entry on the term “lame brain.” We don’t recommend using it.