The Role of the Communicator in Abolishing Offensive LanguageAs communications professionals, we’re all—generally speaking—lovers of language and people who have mysterious ways with words.

This makes us good at understanding when to use and when not to use specific words and phrases. Particularly those considered to be offensive.

As a deaf public relations professional, I’m already hyper-aware of the use of language around disability.

But, I was still shocked to discover the “H” word on the Cision UK website was a searchable category within their latest news function.

“Handicapped” is not an acceptable word to use in relation to persons with disabilities. This has been true in the UK for many years now.

So what was it doing on such a high-profile website like Cision?

Is the “H” Word Really Still in Use?

To make sure I wasn’t alone in my offensive language outrage (spoiler alert: I wasn’t), I turned to the Spin Sucks community, and my Twitter network.

I sought their help to try and establish how widespread, or not, the use of this word is.

And I wanted to figure out why Cision would think it necessary as a search query.

I was able to establish that in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Ghana, it’s a term not often in use. However, it is still in practice in Romania.

And a search for “handicapped” news brought up some interesting results including regional publications in Quebec, New Mexico, and the UAE. They all used the word in headlines for news articles.

But, I’m sorry to say America, the number of regional dailies in the USA using this word in their news articles was, let’s just say, WOW!

Considering both the PRSA and the AP Style Guide clearly state that the use of “handicapped” or “handicap” is to be avoided, it’s heavily used in headlines in many state publications.

(Disclosure: GDPR has prevented me from looking at these in-depth because of my EU location, so I don’t know if the word is used beyond the headline.)

Thanks to Spin Sucks community member Christopher Penn, who supplied a graph compiled from data using Google’s GDELT Google News database, we have a handy graph showing how often this term has been used by different countries in the last year.

Many of those mentions were in relation to parking. But on further inspection, I found several using the term as an adjective to describe a person.

disability language

(Image courtesy of Christopher Penn)

My research had time constraints, but sadly, it does appear the “H” word is still in semi-popular use.

The next question is, how does that affect us as communicators?

The Communicator’s Responsibility

Where does the responsibility lie in forcing offensive language out of our lexicon for good?

Arguably, you might say Cision is a facilitator. They’re not responsible for the words themselves, but simply offer a vehicle for people to find articles relating to disability.

If “handicapped” is still showing up in news releases, then it’s likely a search term people will use.


Both the Spin Sucks community and my own Twitter network overwhelmingly agreed the word has no place in modern communications.

And, as the mouthpiece for client organizations, we are in an ideal position to make a permanent, positive change.

This includes not enabling others to use terms that are outdated or offensive, specifically in relation to disability.

That means not sharing, promoting or supporting content that uses words such as “handicapped.”

Recently on Twitter, someone said disability is often the forgotten minority and “the hardest one for corporates to crack.”

While I dislike the idea that minorities vary in importance, I do think there’s truth to it being hard to crack.

Disability is tough to talk about, so many don’t.

It’s this silence that leads to the continuing use of offensive language, and a lack of empathy over how those words can hurt those of us with a disability.

Again, this is where comms pros can step in.

We’re good listeners, we’re adept at keeping our metaphorical fingers on the pulse of our audiences, we anticipate, and we respond.

All good traits we can employ to improve our disability-related communications.

Ways to Abolish Offensive Language

To avoid situations like Cision (they removed the word and issued an apology) and step up to our responsibility to communicate with consideration, it’s important to understand the evolution of language related to minority groups such as disability.

I’m not going to lie, at times, it can be complex.

Everyone has their own terminology for defining themselves. Some people, like me, are okay with using the term “disabled.” For others, it’s a no-go.

But we can all take steps to better-equip ourselves and be more aware when communicating disability and other news relating to diversity.

Here are four ways to begin:

  1. Connect with disability charities. UK charities, such as Scope, are a great resource to understand terminology usage, work requirements, and opportunities in hiring persons with disabilities.
  2. Call it out. We need to speak up and speak out. For example, if you hear or see language related to disability and you know it’s not acceptable usage—or even if you think it could come across as offensive language—have that discussion. Invest the time in getting it right.
  3. Seek out unconscious bias training. Also called implicit bias. This is something we all have, but don’t realize it. Training gives us the opportunity to see different world views and the tools to employ alternative tactics and actions, which benefit everyone. Make it part of your CPD.
  4. Keep industry resources handy. The CIPR, PRCA, and PRSA all have guidelines on suitable language around disability and diversity. These guides are free and easily available to download. If you’ve not read them, do it immediately after reading this.

Why Does it Matter?

As we come to realize that embracing those with diverse skills and talents can greatly benefit our teams, agencies, and work, we’ll become better at understanding the language associated with disability.

We’ll also become more comfortable using it.

And believe me, we need to reach that point. Soon.

This is because disability covers a much wider range of conditions than most people realize, including depression and mental health-related illness.

Both have seen a huge increase in the last few years. And it’s something PR as an industry is taking seriously.

Yet, we don’t associate mental health with a disability. Consequently, we use different, often more considered, language.

If we take the same serious and proactive approach to the use of language as it relates to other aspects of disability in media, then we stand a chance of having more inclusive and respectful communications.

Make a Difference

If you see this happening, take the lead. Don’t wait for others to speak up.

Suggest alternatives. Explain why this isn’t okay.

And if you don’t know or you’re not sure what the right thing is, employ point one on my list above.

We need to stop sucking so badly at diversity-related issues in communications.

Small changes, such as asking Cision to remove one word, make a difference and can help to ensure big changes happen over time.

Photo by Miki Fath on Unsplash

Sara Hawthorn

Sara Hawthorn founded and runs InFusion Comms, a PR communications agency working for clients across energy, construction, and manufacturing. A former journalist, copywriter, and press officer, media and communications has been a part of her life for the last 17 years. When she steps away from her business she waltzes around the room in ballroom and latin dance classes and, like every other writer ever, is working on a novel.

View all posts by Sara Hawthorn