I’m a Canadian writer but, beyond that, I’m a disabled journalist. The style bible in use north of the border is called the Canadian Press Style Guide, or CP Guide for short. The initialism for my disability, cerebral palsy, is also CP. I often joke with colleagues that I was almost certainly born to do this if the naming conventions of the industry are anything to go by. In fact, this tiny connection is one of the only things, in journalism or in the wider publishing industry, that I am sure of. As always, the goalposts move. Sometimes, even in the right direction. This was true for a recent revision of the Associated Press Stylebook.
On April 23, the AP announced what it called a “revision and expansion” of its guidelines for writing about disabled people. The advice highlighted the need to stay away from old tropes relating to disabled people—that we are just sad objects of pity who need to be doted on via the written word; that we are suffering, or bound, or afflicted. Given this update, one might think that the disability community felt triumphant. However, the joys of being 20% (or thereabouts) of the population is that we are not a monolith and neither is how we identify.
The AP was quickly criticized for its advice surrounding person-first vs. identity-first language. The news agency noted that some people prefer identity-first language, like I’ve used thus far in this piece—disabled followed by identifier. I use identity first because disability permeates every part of my lived experience. My brain damage is not going away, and I don’t need the small reminders that I’m a person.
The other option, person first—e.g., “a journalist with CP”—is used in some circles, but is largely deployed outside of the community by people who feel icky about the word disabled. Like they might catch something or, importantly for writers, like we’re not seen as fully fledged human beings in wider society. Imagine that.
After noting that these distinctions exist, the AP decided—in line with the National Center for Disability Journalism’s guidance at the time (I’m unsure if they collaborated on this decision)—to make its stance, “In describing groups of people, or when individual preferences can’t be determined, use person-first language.” To which many disabled Twitter users, to put it mildly, disagreed. Three days later came a Tweet welcoming readers to give the AP feedback. The NCDJ revised its guidelines this month, removing the suggestion that newsrooms use person-first language automatically.
This whole situation reminds me that it is a moral imperative to go beyond the style guide—to take it as our duty to shepherd the stories of those we are writing about, even if they are fictional, with the utmost of care and attention. Guidance like this has been in the CP Guide for as long as I’ve been reading it—about a decade. And yet, as I write this, typing “handicapped” into Google’s news-specific search function nets 255,000 results. “Crippled,” which is often thoughtlessly used in the same way that “turn a blind eye” and “to have a deaf ear” are, turns up over a million results. “Wheelchair-bound” (as opposed to “wheelchair user,” the preferred term)? 96,300. Just because industry publications give advice doesn’t mean writers take it. I have all the respect in the world for the NCDJ, but style guides change at a glacial pace. It’s not that there isn’t a desire to change—the AP’s quick about-face shows that there is; it’s that writers are creatures of habit. It’s not like handicapped just fell out of favor.
We can’t allow style guides to be the ultimate deciders of writer morality. We have to ask better of ourselves. As writers, I’d like to think our responsibility is to subject and audience. No audience is served best when the term wheelchair bound is used. Cripple doesn’t help us understand the plight of those in debt anymore than saying I am handicapped gives you any inkling into my way of being in the world. The part the AP did get right—ask, and honor what you are told—fell flat when it came to the audience the change was meant to serve.
For writers, and style guide editors, my advice is the same: listen, act, reflect, repeat.
John Loeppky is a disabled freelance journalist living in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has written for Briarpatch, CBC, FiveThirtyEight, Defector, and many others.