Frisky Mail Bag: How To Write About Disabilities

Last week in Today’s Lady News, I posted about a man in Connecticut who had his sexual assault conviction overturned by a court. Richard Fourtin, Jr. had raped a woman with severe cerebral palsy; she cannot speak and has little body movement. The sexual assault conviction was overturned on the grounds that it could not be proven she refused consent. You can read more about the specifics of the case here and here.

After the post ran, I received an email from a reader, who asked to go by the name Les, regarding the language I used in reference to people with disabilities. For example, I wrote “mental disability” instead of “intellectual disability,” which Les explained in the preferred phrasing.  I was unaware of the language disability rights advocates suggest us journalists/bloggers use, so I found the email to be really educational. I asked her permission to print her email as a “Letter To The Editor.” You can read it after the jump!

Dear Jessica,

I’m writing to ask you to consider using different language when writing about people with disabilities. I noticed you used some language that people with disabilities may find offensive.

1. Try using people first language because it emphasizes the person and not the disability. So, “person with a disability,” rather than “disabled person.”

2. Try using “intellectual disability” instead of “mental disability.”

3. Try avoiding comparisons to children when you are writing about adults. It’s demeaning to say a grown adult has the capacity of a child. She doesn’t. She has the capacity of a grown woman with cerebral palsy.

The court case you wrote about certainly seems outrageous but there is another topic that’s also outrageous. Sometimes people think that adults with intellectual disabilities should not engage in sexual activity at all and they use comparisons to children to justify it. Again, I’m not saying that particular case was right, I’m just saying that it can be a tricky line when denying the rights of people with disabilities.

Perhaps you would consider writing an article about how the sexual rights of some people are hindered because people think they are not capable of consenting? It’s certainly thought provoking and it may educate your readers.

Best wishes,

This is all really good to know. Thanks, Les, for the enlightening (and respectful!) email. I will absolutely keep your critiques in mind when writing about disability issues in the future.

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