I write about some of Canada’s most controversial legal issues. This year, I’ve started to read through style guides to ensure that I’m using correct language, and respectful language. Given that these style guides are so easily available, I was surprised to learn about this practice:
The media also tends to use the term “Down syndrome babies” rather than “babies with Down syndrome.” For an industry that aims at political correctness, it is striking that journalists often ignore the preferred language people with Down syndrome have offered to describe themselves and instead perpetuate the idea that having a 47th chromosome is the person’s most descriptive attribute. Again, a smattering of examples: “She just didn’t look like a typical Down syndrome baby” (New York Times); “One mom’s struggle, joy with Down syndrome baby” (Today Show); “And yes, she really did walk the walk when she found out she was carrying a Down-syndrome baby” (Ann Coulter describing Sarah Palin in TIME). I could go on.
Members of the media speak in broad terms about any number of groups, but again, reporters attempt to use the language that groups have designated as appropriate for their outlet. The Style Guide for the New York Times explains, “This [style manual] counsels respect for group sensibilities and preferences that have made themselves heard in the last two or three decades – concerns, for example, of women, minorities and those with disabilities. The manual favors constructions that keep words neutral…” But even when trying to tell a positive story, many who write and report about people with Down syndrome (for the New York Times and elsewhere) do so through a negative lens that equates Down syndrome with suffering.
Whether with benign or malicious intentions, many people discriminate by looking at people with Down syndrome categorically, before recognizing them as individuals. They assume that all people with Down syndrome look alike, or all people with Down syndrome are sweet, stubborn, angels, or drains on society. I suspect that these biases arise due to the physical characteristics that visually connect individuals with Down syndrome combined with ignorance about the potential for meaningful lives among individuals with intellectual disabilities.