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 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.
“Physician-assisted death” or “medical-assisted death” refers to the ability of a person with an end-stage, terminal illness to request medical assistance from a physician as an end-of-life option. “Physician-assisted death/dying” and “medical-assisted death” are the clearest terms and more descriptive than a phrase like “aid in dying.”
Prescription medications include a wide variety of medicines. How someone takes a medication can be described in terms of “takes” or “is prescribed,” instead of “uses,” as referring to prescription medications in terms of “drugs” and “uses” can carry strong connotations of substance use disorder or intentional misuse, particularly around medications that are perceived as being commonly misused.
A sexually transmitted infection refers to bacteria, a virus, or a parasite known to be transmitted through sexual activity. Sexually transmitted infection, or STI, is more accurate than the term sexually transmitted disease (STD), which can also be stigmatizing. 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. Careful media coverage can help demystify and destigmatize STIs, and may encourage people to seek testing and treatment.
A slur is biased language that is offensive toward a person or group based on identity, such as race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or disability, or class. Some words once considered slurs have been reclaimed in certain contexts by the populations they were once used to disparage. Still, given the historically offensive nature of terms such as these, caution is warranted when deciding to repeat them in full, especially outside the context of someone’s self-identification. Keeping repetition to a minimum helps avoid unintentionally desensitizing audiences to the use of such terms. If someone uses a particular term to self-identify, making sure it’s clear that is their stated preference adds necessary context.
Social determinants of health are five factors that impact an individual’s health and well-being, and contribute to health disparities and inequities. It’s a public health term that includes factors such as economic stability and health care access. Social determinants of health cover many factors that may be referred to as “lifestyle factors” or “lifestyle risks,” such as tobacco use, diet, or exercise. A person does not have control over every single quality that impacts their health; the social determinants of health recognize this in the way that risk factors are organized and labeled “social,” not “individual.”
A service animal is trained to perform specific tasks and provide support to a person with a disability. When describing a dog that assists a blind person or person with low vision, the default term should be “guide dog,” as Seeing Eye Dog is a trademarked term. Using language such as “pet” to describe a service animal can minimize the specific utility of the animal’s role in a person’s life.
“Survivor” is a term used by some people who have had an illness or similar experience. Because of the many connotations and uses of the term, “survivor” may not match every person’s perception of their experience. Following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience. Language that feels empowering to certain people may not work for everyone.
A temporary disability is any disability that is not expected to be permanent or lasting, such as a broken arm due to an injury. A person with a temporary disability may not identify as someone with a disability during that experience but should still be taken into consideration when thinking about accessibility or universal design.
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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