Writing About Disabled People

Ramps on the Moon is committed to challenging the stories that are told about disabled people on the stages and in the corridors of mid-scale touring theatre venues and beyond. We do this by ensuring that the voices of D/deaf and disabled people are central to everything we do.

Here is a list of some of the most common ways in which disabled people are portrayed (with reference to Professor Colin Barnes’ research into society’s discrimination of disabled people[1] and the media portrayals that exacerbate and fuel that discrimination):

Disabled people are most often portrayed as

  • pitiable and pathetic;
  • sinister and evil;
  • providing atmosphere or horror;
  • a super cripple, overcoming adversity;
  • an object of ridicule;
  • a burden to all around them;
  • asexual or an object of fetishism;
  • incapable of participating fully in community life;
  • having a life not worth living;
  • a foil for the main protagonist’s epiphany or salvation;
  • an inspiration;
  • waiting to be cured.

Accurate Portrayals

An accurate portrayal of disabled people does not focus on a medical condition unless it is genuinely relevant to the subject of the piece. It does not focus on what a hard life a disabled person has and how they battle with their ‘disability’; it is better to look instead at the barriers and issues in society and the world around them that disabled people face in going about their everyday lives.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people does not use well-worn tropes such as triumphing over adversity, or references to hope or courage in direct reference to the person’s condition or impairment. This is known as ‘inspiration porn’ and is objectifying and deeply insulting.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people uses neutral language: for example, someone has cerebral palsy, they are not a victim of it; they have epilepsy, they do not suffer from it.

An accurate portrayal of disability does not use impairment-based language as a metaphor for a negative behaviour or trait. So, someone might refuse to listen to an argument but they are not deaf to it; someone might not understand the logic of an argument but they are not blind to it.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people includes an inherent assumption that some of the people reading the piece might, themselves, be disabled.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people does not make assumptions about what disabled people feel, want or experience.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people recognises that many are economically active rather than as recipients of charity.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people shows disabled people interacting with non-disabled people as friends, family, managers, employees, colleagues.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people recognises that disabled people are not all the same and avoids language that gives the impression of a homogeneous group; it avoids phrases such as ‘the disabled’.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people, where it describes achievement, talks about the achievement in its relevant context: for example, Paralympic athletes are elite athletes who excel at their sport, they are not super-cripples who have overcome their condition.

An accurate portrayal of disabled people shows disabled people in all their diversity, recognising that ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, age and every other characteristic can co-exist with impairment.

 

Specific Language

It is helpful to look at a few examples of specific terminology:

‘Disabled person’ not ‘person with a disability’; this is consistent with the social model since I am disabled by the obstacles and barriers that society puts in my way; it is done to me; it is not an inherent characteristic that I have or exhibit.

Saying that I have a disability is making it my problem when, in reality, it is a problem with the environment and with society.

‘Non-disabled person’ not ‘able-bodied’, ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’; this also reinforces the fact that I am disabled by barriers in society in a way that others are not.

‘Person with epilepsy’ not ‘an epileptic’; nobody is defined by their condition, or subsumed into their impairment, it is something they have.

‘A ramp’ or ‘level access’ not ‘wheelchair ramp’ or ‘disabled entrance’; describe the environment in a neutral manner, not who you think needs it.

‘Personal Assistant’ not ‘carer’;  this avoids the assumption that someone providing support for a disabled person necessarily has a familial or emotional relationship with them; they may well be an employee.

Note that this document is not a set of instructions on words you are and are not ‘allowed’ to use about disabled people and the issue of disability. Rather, it is an overview of the ways in which we can (albeit inadvertently) perpetuate stereotypes of D/deaf and disabled people by failing to question our own assumptions and unconscious bias.

Michele Taylor

[1] Colin Barnes, Disabling Imagery and the Media, British Council of Organisations of Disabled People and Ryburn Publishing Ltd,1992