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Friday, July 27, 2012

Words Can Wound: How The Media Describe The Mentally Ill And Disabled - Kaiser Health News

Leading with reference to the controversy raised after an NPR reporter referred to a man as a "nutcase," the authors ask the question:
[S]hould the media in general be more careful about the language used to describe mental illness and disability?
They quote Bob Carolla, director of media relations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who said poor choices of words tend to reinforce ingrained cultural stereotypes:
There’s a distancing for people with mental illness, usually with the perception of, "Oh, if they have a mental illness, they must be violent." And that’s such a low percentage that we would be talking about.
Similarly, Ron Honberg, national director for policy and legal affairs at National Alliance on Mental Illness, said:
It impacts negatively on people’s ability to get jobs, to find housing, to have social relationships. It’s as big a barrier to recovery probably as the symptoms themselves.
The writers note that the language used by mental health professionals to describe mental illness and disability has improved over the years, according to advocates. "Mild," "moderate," "severe" and "profound" have replaced "moron," "imbecile" and "idiot" as the terms describing mental deficiency.
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And they note how the Associated Press Stylebook, the "bible" of editorial style used many journalists, has changed:
According to David Minthorn, deputy standards editor of the Associated Press and one of three AP Stylebook editors, the stylebook through the 2000s listed “mentally retarded” as the preferred term for “people with significantly sub-average intellectual functioning.” It had a disclaimer to not use retard as a noun.
But in 2008, AP substituted "mentally disabled" as the preferred term., after discussing language usage with medical professionals. I recall discussing that suggestion at work with diversity and civil rights specialists. Their preference, as inserted into the organization style manual:
[I]nstead of using broad terms like a person with a mental [or cognitive] disability or a person with a physical [or mobility] disability, consider using a useful phrase that describes the effect of the disability, if appropriate: He has a disability that makes it easy for him to become lost.
Of course, as the AP Stylebook also says:
[D]o not describe an individual as disabled or handicapped unless it is clearly pertinent to a story.
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For more information on this topic, see the Avoiding Bias section in Garbl's Style and Usage Links.


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