The trouble with labeling people

sprovost@thetribunenews.comJuly 16, 2012 

I do my job by adhering to a couple of basic principles: Respect the language and respect the reader.

What happens, however, when these goals conflict?

I appeared to be faced with such a quandary in editing a story about Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who qualified to run in the Olympics. Pistorius runs on a pair of carbon-fiber blades that he uses in place of his lower legs, which were amputated when he was an infant.

Pistorius’ participation in the London Olympics is inspirational, but also controversial. Should Pistorius be allowed to run against other athletes who don’t use carbon-fiber blades? Do these blades give him an edge? Do they place him at a disadvantage?

The Associated Press examined these questions in a story that ran on The Tribune’s front page July 10. In considering the story for the cover, we read a brief synopsis that included a reference to “able-bodied” athletes. A colleague said many people consider this phrase offensive, because it implies that people with disabilities lack able bodies.

The point, I thought, was well taken. The vast majority of people who use wheelchairs can see just fine, communicate effectively and perform a wide range of physical tasks. A glance at the National Center on Disability and Journalism website confirmed my colleague’s concern. The term “able-bodied,” according to the site, “implies that all people with disabilities lack ‘able bodies’ or the ability to use their bodies well.”

But that left an open question: What’s the most appropriate way to refer to people in this category?

Here’s where I ran into some trouble. The site’s solution was to use the term “non-disabled.” I squirmed. I chafed. I bit my tongue. My high school English teacher had taught me to avoid double negatives, and this term clearly qualified. The “non” and the “dis” prefix cancel each other out.

Then I found myself asking another question: Is it accurate to say a person who has qualified to run in the Olympics is disabled? If anything, he’s more able than the vast majority of us. If calling other athletes “ablebodied” implies something about Pistorius, labeling him as “disabled” goes beyond implication. It comes right out and describes him as less than capable, and that’s just plain false. Pistorius may be a double amputee, but he’s certainly not disabled.

Here’s the point: Labels are often problematic. Fitting individuals into cookie-cutter categories can be messy and, at times, quite hurtful. It’s also not the most effective way to tell the story.

My high school English teacher gave me another piece of good advice: Show, don’t tell. Labels can be a lazy writer’s way out. They’re two-dimensional substitutes for language that paints a vivid picture.

What tells you more: a sentence that labels Pistorius as “disabled” or one that describes him as a double amputee who will be running in the Olympics using carbon-fiber blades?

Labels, though sometimes necessary, depersonalize us. They reduce individuals to caricatures. If I want a caricature, I’ll go to the fair and pay one of those talented midway sketch artists a few bucks to whip up an outline in black ink. If I want to flesh things out, I’ll read a story that goes beyond labels and draws a complex picture I can appreciate.

In the Pistorius story, I was able to remove the three references to “able-bodied” athletes without sacrificing a thing.

I didn’t use the dreaded label “non-disabled,” either.

In the final analysis, I didn’t have to choose between respecting the language and respecting the reader. Those two goals turned out to be one and the same.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor. Reach him at sprovost@thetribunenews.com.

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