Guide to language & disability on TV

FreeTV Australia has issued a list of guidelines for commercial Free to Air networks to follow when referring to people with a disability.

The Advisory Note, for reporters, producers and classifiers, suggests ways to change the emphasis from the disability itself to the individual.

It also suggests ways to change the emphasis from the disability itself to the individual, from unduly emotional coverage and a focus on personal suffering to include the community’s response to the needs of people with disabilities.

As many as 18% of the population fall within this broad category.

Guide to Appropriate Language
(though check with person to be interviewed/ profiled)

DON’T: Afflicted with (most people with disabilities don’t see themselves as afflicted)
DO: “has” (the disability)

DON’T: Birth defect, congenital defect, deformity “has had a disability since birth”,
DO: “has a congenital disability”

DON’T: Blind (the), visually impaired (the)
DO: “the blind community”; otherwise, “is blind”, or “has impaired vision” (for a person with some degree of useful vision)

DON’T: Confined to a wheelchair; wheelchairbound (a wheelchair provides mobility not restriction)
DO: “uses a wheelchair”

DON’T: Cripple, crippled (these terms convey a negative image of a twisted ugly body)
DO: “has a physical disability”, “whose physical disabilities restrict (his/her) mobility”

DON’T: Deaf (The)
DO: Appropriate when referring to the deaf community, or (capitalised) to people who identify as members of the signing Deaf community. Otherwise, someone “who is deaf, hard of hearing or a person with a hearing impairment”

DON’T: Deaf and dumb
DO: “who is deaf and uses sign language”

DON’T: Defective, deformed (degrading terms, avoid)
DO: Specify the disability

DON’T: Disabled (The)
DO: “people with a disability”; the “disabled sector”; the “disability community”

DON’T: Dwarf
DO: “short”, “less than . . .cm”, “below average height”

DON’T: Epileptic
DO: “has epilepsy”

DON’T: Fit (attack/spell)
DO: “seizure”

DON’T: Insane (also lunatic, mental patient, mentally diseased, neurotic, psychotic, schizophrenic, unsound mind, mad, demented, etc)
DO: “has a psychiatric disability”, “psychiatric patient” (in the case of people in hospital, or
of a doctor/ patient relationship), or else specify the condition

DON’T: Invalid
DO: “has” (a disability), or specify the name of the medical condition if the person has one

DON’T: Mentally retarded, mentally defective
DO: “intellectually disabled”, “has an intellectual disability”

DON’T: Mongol
DO: “has Down Syndrome”

DON’T: Physically/intellectually challenged
DO: “has” (a physical/intellectual disability)

DON’T: Spastic: usually refers to a person withcerebral palsy or someone who has uncontrollable spasms
DO: “has cerebral palsy”

DON’T: Suffers from, sufferer, stricken with:
DO: “has” (the disability)

DON’T: Vegetative
DO: “in a coma”, “comatose” or “unconscious”

DON’T: Victim
DO: “has” (the disability)

General Approach

1. Try to depict people with disabilities in ways which do not stereotype them, or stigmatise them as quite different from the community at large.
Common stereotypes to avoid include:

  disability is a monumental tragedy
  people with a disability are objects of pity or charity
  if they do things like getting married and having children they are extraordinary
  they lead boring, uneventful lives
  families of people with a disability are exceptionally heroic.

2. Choose phrases and words that individuals with disabilities will not find demeaning (see below for more detailed comments on language and disability).

3. Present people with disabilities as individuals, not just as the sum of their disabilities, nor as necessarily representative of all people with disabilities.

4. Recognise that disabilities affect people in different ways, depending on a host of different factors. Having a disability is for many an unavoidable fact of life, not something to be dramatised.

5. Only draw attention to a person’s disability when it is relevant.

6. When a person with disabilities is featured in a story, the human-interest angle of the individual overcoming overwhelming odds may sometimes be the appropriate one, but don’t automatically choose it.

7. Don’t overlook the views of people with disabilities in stories dealing with general interest issues such as public transport, the environment and child care.

8. Introduce people with disabilities by their titles and full names, if this is done for other people in the program or item. 9. Whenever Auslan interpreters are present at a broadcast event, consider whether it is practicable to clearly include them within the frame.


  1. mateo_mathieu

    As a deaf person, I have never used the capitalise D in deaf because, to me, it becomes them (hard of hearing or orally people) vs us (deaf people). I only use the capitalise D when I talk about a group of people (i.e. the Deaf Community). Just saying.

    Oh, and don’t use the word hearing impaired. Hard of hearing is the new name. I’m surprised by this article says it’s OK to say hearing impaired.

  2. Hmm this is a vexed issue with no absolutes. What one person likes another may not, I refer to myself as a wheelchair user, but rarely divulge what my diagnosis is, not out of shame but rather because it is simply not that interesting or important. After all I am yet to meet anyone who has the same diagnosis who is even 70% similar in abilities. We are all unique in abilities, the community want to understand and box us up. The inspiration who overcomes and conquers their disability, – yawn this is what the late great Stella Young called inspiration porn, – utterly unhelpful. It devalues us as fully rounded people who live with disability. Inspiration comes in many forms simply living our lives is not one of them.

    What FTA have done makes some sense and is a start, but do not treat these guidelines as a bible. When the best way to interact with those of us with a disability is fairly…

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