The Language of Respect in Health and Wellness

More and more, respectful language in health and wellness puts people first. Now, the new edition of the AP Stylebook includes guidance on writing about addiction that advises writers to use people-first language. Addiction is a disease. AP cautions against labeling people as addicts, alcoholics, users, and abusers.

Language for Writing About Chronic Diseases

This new guidance lines up with the Stylebook’s advice for writing about disabilities and chronic diseases:

In general, do not describe an individual as disabled or handicapped unless it is clearly pertinent to a story.

Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with or suffers from multiple sclerosis. Rather, has multiple sclerosis.

As Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli advocated for respectful language in addressing addiction. Talking with NPR last week, he explained:

These are issues, and these are words that have a dramatic impact on both clinical care and about how medical professionals actually see and treat people with addiction.

Bad Habits Die Hard

Botticelli notes that “language changes are always hard.” And when the subject is obesity, this thought is especially true.

While the AMA has recently underscored the importance of respectful words for addressing obesity, the AP has not yet caught up. While the Stylebook discourages labeling people as afflicted, addicted, autistic, disabled, or handicapped, it remains silent about disparaging people with obesity. Describing people as obese remains acceptable in AP style.

Body image and obesity are fraught subjects. Separating the chronic, metabolic disease of obesity from a person’s personal identity is especially hard. Some advocates for fat acceptance claim “fat” as an objective description and an identity. But for most people, it’s a dehumanizing epithet.

Words do matter. The words that people choose can convey respect. Or they can promote stigma. We stand for respect.

Click here for more from NPR and here for more from Slate.

Language, photograph © esotericpixel1 / flickr

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August 6, 2017

3 Responses to “The Language of Respect in Health and Wellness”

  1. August 06, 2017 at 7:59 am, Angela Meadows said:

    Whether or not you can get behind the use of the word “fat”, person-first language is not the only answer. Even within disability communities it is controversial (Meadows & Danielsdottir 2016 (doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01527), and I recently read a very interested paper in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (doi:10.1111/jcpp.12706), which showed that analysis of the literature indicated PFL is used predominantly in cases where the “condition” is considered most stigmatising, and not in cases where it isn’t. Thus, even though you are avoiding the use of language such as “suffering from” or “afflicted with”, this uneven usage requirements is essentially doing just that – it is highlighting, rather than downplaying, an “afflicted” status.

    I note that the APA style guide advice you cite, states: “In general, do not describe an individual as disabled or handicapped unless it is clearly pertinent to a story.” I think the “In general” part is important. I believe obligating one particular type of terminology at all times, as is currently being done by some journals relating to the use of PFL wrt weight, is not appropriate.

    • August 06, 2017 at 11:43 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Angela. I’m just not a fan all the finger pointing that aims to persuade people that they are “obese.” Even worse are programs like this that aim to shock parents into thinking their children are “obese.”

  2. August 07, 2017 at 8:24 am, Angela Meadows said:

    Yep appalling.