Wheelchairs unbound

Haligonian Warren Reed objects to the thoughtlessly patronizing word choices many journalists apply to wheelchair-users and those who discriminate them.

In an email to two Chronicle-Herald reporters who recently wrote about separate cases of discrimination by Metro Transit and the Nova Scotia Justice Department against wheelchair users, he complained about three sentences in their stories:

  • “The driver even called his supervisor, who confirmed that wheelchair-bound passengers are not allowed on [Bus No.] 60.”
  • “However, Sunday morning the driver said that he could get in a lot of trouble for letting wheelchair-bound passengers onto non-wheelchair routes.”
  • “Amy Paradis, 16, is quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair.”

Reed wrote:

Evidently, the style manual in use at the Chronicle Herald requires the modification of wheelchair either with “confined” or “bound.” This must be in the chapter on Gratuitous 19th Century Misconceptions.

Bob Sheeny’s wheelchair doesn’t seem to restrain him in any way; What prevents him from visiting his friend is not his disability, but the intransigence of Metro Transit. Without the discriminatory foot-dragging of Metro Transit, Mr. Sheeny would be able to get on any bus in HRM – just as he could in London or New York. It’s not that Mr. Sheeny can’t do things; he’s prevented from doing them.

You should train yourself to use the much more accurate phrase “wheelchair user.”  Wheelchairs are enabling and liberating.

  • Wheelchair users are not allowed on the No. 60 bus.
  • He could get in a lot of trouble for letting wheelchair users onto non-wheelchair routes.
  • Amy Paradis, 16 uses a wheelchair.

Those sentences are not judgmental, and they help clarify the absurdity of the situation. Let me see. Bus drivers can get in trouble for letting passengers on their buses? The important thing about Amy is that she uses a wheelchair, not her medical condition. If you gave a medical opinion every time you mentioned Darrell Dexter or Stephen Harper, you’d be spending most of your time in court.

I recommend substituting these catch-phrases, which are highly accurate:

  • Discriminatory Metro Transit
  • Cliche-ridden Chronicle Herald
  • Proudly backward Halifax officials
  • Patronizing Chronicle Herald reporters
  • Poorly served Chronicle Herald readers

When you see Bob Sheeny, don’t feel sorry for him, just get out of his way.

I’m uncomfortable singling out the Herald here, because I’m sure I’ve used the same stupid phrases without thinking. I bet the reporters in question slapped their heads in dismayed recognition when they read Reed’s sharp letter.

Still, in 2010, there’s no excuse for a newspaper copy desk not having clear and enforced policies on such word choices — as, hopefully, the Herald does now.