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Disabilities, Neurodiversity, and Chronic Illness

hate crime

A hate crime as defined by the Justice Department is “a crime motivated by bias against [perceived or actual] race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.” Since the legal standard for a hate crime is narrow and may be difficult to determine, especially in a breaking news situation, adding hedging language such as “possible” or “alleged” may be necessary until further information is available.

HIV and AIDS

People with HIV or AIDS have long faced stigmas and discrimination. When describing a person with HIV or AIDS, “person with [HIV or AIDS],” “person living with [HIV or AIDS],” or “person who is HIV-positive” is straightforward; following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience. Disclosing an HIV or AIDS status can have major repercussions for a person’s life. As with disclosing any health condition, it should be done only when relevant and necessary to coverage, and it’s important to confirm with someone whether they are comfortable having their status written about publicly.

intellectual and developmental disabilities

Intellectual and developmental disabilities are disabilities that occur before the age of 18. Developmental disabilities can include physical and/or intellectual delays; the abbreviation IDD is sometimes used to signify that intellectual and other disabilities are present. Developmental disabilities include lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Euphemisms like “special,” “special needs,” or “intellectually challenged” are vague and may be perceived as patronizing; language such as “has a developmental disability” or specifying the disability is straightforward and helpful for clarity.

invisible 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.

medical racism

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.

neurodivergent

Neurodivergent is an umbrella term to refer to neurological minorities, including people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, Tourette’s syndrome, and tics. The opposite term is “neurotypical.” Equating neurotypicality to being “normal” or having a “healthy” brain can reinforce misleading assumptions and stigma about neurodivergence.

neurodiversity

Neurodiversity refers to the presence of many different types of minds throughout the human race, all of which have valuable characteristics. The term aims to categorize autism, ADHD, and other developmental conditions as naturally occurring traits in the human population rather than pathologies to be “cured.” A group or population can be neurodiverse, but a single person cannot, and the term generally isn’t used in a person-first way (e.g., “a person with neurodiversity”). An individual could be referred to as a neurominority or neurologically marginalized, or described with their diagnosis; some also call themselves “neurodivergent.”

palliative care

Palliative care is a type of medical treatment focused on relieving symptoms and pain and managing a serious illness. It is distinct from hospice care in that it can be given at any point within an illness, whereas hospice care is only provided as end-of-life care.

patient

A patient is a person in a specific medical situation. It is not always an accurate term for any person in any medical condition. It’s also important to remember that not every person who has a disability or illness is also currently a patient.

person-first language

Person-first language refers to the practice of leading with the individual rather than their condition, such as writing “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person.” Some prefer identity-first language, such as “chronically ill person” or “disabled person,” as they cannot or don’t want to separate themselves from their disability or illness in the same way that person-first language seems to encourage. Taking into account the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience.

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. 

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