Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that used to be called “manic depression,” characterized by alternating episodes of unusually low mood (depression) and elevated mood (mania). When deciding whether to mention a specific diagnosis of bipolar disorder, there are several things to consider. Is it pertinent to your story? Is it a formal diagnosis you’ve verified? Do you have the person’s permission? Phrases like “X has bipolar disorder” or “X is being treated for bipolar disorder” (versus “is bipolar”) are ways to frame a diagnosis as just one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them.
There can be a wide range of experiences among people with blindness or vision loss. Total blindness is the complete loss of sight, while low vision is significant loss of sight; legal blindness is specifically defined as having 20/200 visual acuity. Terms like “vision impairment” or “visually impaired” can be read as portraying blindness negatively. Person-first language when discussing blindness can also be used, such as the “person who is blind” or “person with low vision,” though taking into account the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience.
Cancer is a disease related to the uncontrolled proliferation of abnormal cells in the body and the leading cause of death worldwide. The term has long been used metaphorically. Use caution when employing the term in a metaphorical sense, as such narratives often contain racial and socioeconomic implications. When writing about a person receiving cancer treatment, it’s especially useful to pay attention to and understand the terms they use to refer to themselves.
There are many types of chronic illnesses and experiences. Although not every person with a chronic illness will consider themselves to have a disability, some people with chronic illnesses may face similar stigmas as people who may have no “obvious” signs of disability. Following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience. Similarly, not using phrasing like “the chronically ill” ensures coverage considers the specifics of people’s situations and experiences and does not define them by their health status.
Chronic pain is a common condition of persistent pain that continues for more than three to six months. Chronic pain can be an overlooked disability — a person may not “look” sick or have an obvious injury, and the level of a person’s pain may not match assumptions about their initial injury or illness. Taking into account the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience.
A congenital disorder is a condition that has been present since birth, such as Down syndrome or congenital heart disease. This term is more current than “birth defect,” which can imply an individual is “defective.” Focusing on the “chance” or “likelihood” of having a baby with a congenital disorder can be less stigmatizing than a term like “risk.”
Not every condition can be “cured,” nor does everyone with a disability or illness want to be “cured.” Following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience.
Deafness and hearing loss are common conditions. The phrase “d/Deaf” can describe both the condition of deafness and Deaf Culture. When writing about a person who is d/Deaf, it’s best to confirm which capitalization they prefer whenever possible; some may prefer the term Deaf person as opposed to “person who is deaf.” The term d/Deaf is inclusive of both the condition of deafness and Deaf Culture (a brief explanation on first reference may be helpful for general audiences). For a person who has partial hearing loss but is not d/Deaf, the term “hard of hearing” can be used.
A medical term describing a loss of cognitive functioning that impacts an individual’s daily well-being. The term dementia should be used when referring to the actual diagnosis and only when relevant to the story, not as a euphemism or alternative to other kinds of mental decline, such as memory loss.
Language, Please is a living resource that will be regularly updated. We’re working hard on an entry for this topic — please check back in soon.
Last updated 08/05/22
Health is not a static, fixed state — it exists on a spectrum, determined by many factors. How disabilities and illnesses are discussed has changed significantly over time, and careful media coverage will take into account that everyone’s experiences and perceptions of those experiences are different, and there is no one “standard” for health.
This section of the Language, Please style guidance aims to provide tools for avoiding common pitfalls and stereotypes when discussing disabilities and illnesses.
This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will update and expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.
How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms.
Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableist language refers to individual words and phrases (like “dumb” or “crazy”) as well as metaphors or expressions (such as “emotionally crippled”) that perpetuate negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. Unless it is intrinsic to a story, it is usually not necessary to comment on the assumed healthiness or unhealthiness of a person. Using disability-specific terms only in the context of disability, rather than to describe unrelated issues or ideas, helps avoid these pitfalls.
People of color have long faced different types of discrimination within the medical system, which contributes to disparities in health outcomes, treatment, and life expectancy. Mistrust is based not only on historic instances and generational and community information, but also on ongoing implicit bias in the health care system that impacts the care received by a person of color. Consideration of the forces that continue to shape the experiences people of color have within the health care system is important when writing about someone’s experience with an illness or disability.
“Invisible disability” usually refers to a disability that is not readily apparent to an outside observer. Unless mentioning an invisible disability is intrinsic to a story or matches how someone self-identifies, saying “disability” covers any and all disabilities, including seemingly invisible ones. Describing someone as invisibly disabled when they have not expressed this as their preference can be seen as prioritizing others’ perception of them over their experience.
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