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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Disability, Writing Style and the New York Times

The New York Times is the one newspaper I read regularly. I absolutely love and hate the NYT at the same time. The NYT is a paper of extremes in terms of disability. As many familiar with disability rights know, the Sunday Magazine section thrust Harriet McBryde Johnson's debate with Peter Singer into the national spot light. In contrast, readers of this blog know I have severely critiqued NYT articles for publishing sloppy and simply terrible articles about disability. In fact I would characterize most articles that the NYT publishes that touch upon disability related subjects as uniformly bad (the sports, dining, and health sections are consistently terrible).

Given the above I am not sure how to react to Philip B. Corbett contribution on January 6 "Language and Disabilities". Corbett is the deputy news editor who overseas the New York Times style manual and the short essay in question is part of Times Topics, After Deadline. In Mr. Corbett's opinion "we should take extra care in references to people with disabilities". He writes that the "difference between 'the disabled' and 'disabled people' (or 'people with disabilities') is subtle but significant". In addition, "some advocates, in fact, object to any phrase that refers to the disability before the person". Corbett opines that using the word disability in this manner is not always "feasible" for writers in the NYT because it is too wordy or simply awkward. He concludes that "a person with a disability is a person, first of all, with many characteristics beyond the disability".

Golly, I feel so much better. Thanks Mr. Corbett for acknowledging my humanity and the fact I have many character traits beyond my disability. My mother be will thrilled to know that I am more than my disability. Of course, as an "advocate" for people with disabilities one must "take extra care" when near me. We people with disabilities are ever so sensitive.

Sarcasm aside, I appreciate Mr. Corbett's effort and wish him well. I hope all reporters that write for the NYT take his comments to heart--it can only help. But what I want to know is why it took so long for the NYT to acknowledge the humanity of people with disabilities? The ADA was passed almost two decades ago and people with disabilities have fought long and hard to become part of the fabric of life in American society. Do not misunderstand the point I am trying to make: the stylistic change Mr. Corbett suggests is important yet it is one that should have been made long ago. Thus the fact Mr. Corbett and the NYT have just realized the importance of the language associated with the word disability is troubling. Unfortunately Mr. Corbett and the NYT have a lot of company. Few Americans know that the ADA is civil rights legislation, disability rights groups like ADAPT are active, and that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is almost 70% Hopefully Mr. Corbett's contribution will herald a real change in the way the NYT handles disability related matters. I doubt this will happen but at least one person at the NYT is on the ball.

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