Not all media organizations adopt Steenhout’s feelings about the potentialities flowing from wheelchair use. Here’s an excerpt from CNN‘s obituary for Stephen Hawking, the famous British theoretical physicist: “Hawking suffered from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is usually fatal within a few years. He was diagnosed in 1963, when he was 21, and doctors initially gave him only a few years to live. The disease left Hawking wheelchair-bound and paralyzed,” noted the obituary.
Reuters, on the same topic: “In fact there were even advantages to being confined to a wheelchair and having to speak through a voice synthesiser.”
The Los Angeles Times: “Stephen Hawking, the British physicist whose body was chained to a wheelchair by the ravages of a degenerative neuromuscular disease, but whose mind soared to the boundaries of the universe and beyond, died Wednesday morning in Cambridge, England. He was 76.”
Asked about that hardware-tinged formulation, Steenhout told the Erik Wemple Blog, “I would like to see proof of that. I would like to see a photo of Stephen Hawking being chained to a chair,” he said in an interview Thursday afternoon. The language of restriction, argues Steenhout, affects how people view those who have disabilities. “My life really is worth living — I have a good family life, I have a good job, I travel for work. It’s really a good life,” he said.
Nor are his concerns about the language of limitations a fringe opinion. They’re mainstream policy. According to Associated Press spokeswoman Lauren Easton, guidance in the wire service’s stylebook about how to write about wheelchair use dates back at least to 2002. Here’s how the entry breaks down:
disabled, handicappedIn general, do not describe an individual as disabled or handicapped unless it is clearly pertinent to a story. If a description must be used, try to be specific. An ad featuring actor Michael J. Fox swaying noticeably from the effects of Parkinson’s disease drew nationwide attention.Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with or suffers from multiple sclerosis. Rather, has multiple sclerosis.Some terms include:blind Describes a person with complete loss of sight. For others, use terms such as visually impaired or person with low vision.cripple Considered offensive when used to describe a person who is disabled.deaf Describes a person with total hearing loss. For others, use partial hearing loss or partially deaf. Avoid using deaf-mute. Do not use deaf and dumb.disabled A general term used for a physical, mental, developmental or intellectual disability. Do not use mentally retarded.handicap It should be avoided in describing a disability.mute Describes a person who cannot speak. Others with speaking difficulties are speech impaired.wheelchair user People use wheelchairs for independent mobility. Do not use confined to a wheelchair, or wheelchair-bound. If a wheelchair is needed, say why.
The AP guidance caught the eye of the proto-Erik Wemple Blog a decade ago, as we were flipping through the AP Stylebook at the Washington City Paper. It presented a viewpoint that we hadn’t considered, no doubt because the deadening weight of common usage never left open the consideration that anyone using a wheelchair could be anything but “confined.” “Wheelchair” and “confined to a” went together like “day” and “at the end of the.” Proof that this common formulation is ingrained in the language is spilling from Nexis, where media searches for “confined to a wheelchair” can easily max out the database’s displayable results. For 2017, a search for “confined to a wheelchair” among U.S. newspapers and wires fetched 1,147 results. One of them had AP violations in both the headline — “Learning to fly: GoFundMe helping wheelchair-bound student soar toward pilot license” — and the lead sentence — “Being confined to a wheelchair hasn’t stopped Middle Tennessee State University student Cris Rasmussen from soaring toward his dream to become a pilot.”
“One of my pet peeves with journalists is that despite style guides, these expressions keep coming back over and over and over again,” says Steenhout. The Erik Wemple Blog checked with the organizations above to see whether the formulations conflicted with internal standards. Reuters responded that its copy is governed by these two guidelines, which don’t appear to address wheelchairs. A CNN rep responded that the language in its Hawking obituary “does not fit the CNN stylebook so we’re changing it.” A note at the bottom of the piece reads, “Clarification: A previous version of this story described Hawking as being ‘wheelchair-bound.’ We’ve updated the language to avoid the cliché and to note that wheelchairs increase mobility for their users.”
A nice counterexample comes from the Hawking obit in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye, which starts like this: “Stephen W. Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author who roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair, pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe and becoming an emblem of human determination and curiosity, died early Wednesday at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76.”