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The Language of Disability Around the World

The BBC has issued linguistic guidelines for its journalists covering the Paralympic Games. But the guidelines only include English words—which is a problem for the many programs the BBC puts out in other languages.

According to the new rules, ‘disabled person’ is preferable to ‘person with disabilities.’ ‘Invalid’ and ‘handicapped’ are unacceptable. To describe those without a disability, the BBC likes ‘non-disabled’ more than ‘able-bodied.’

The BBC program The Fifth Floor gathered three non-English language journalists to talk about this. Do these reporters translate the approved English terms? Do they use alternative expressions that might be locally acceptable but frowned upon in English? Or do they dream up new terms that make more sense in their languages?

BBC Uzbek reporter Shodiyor Sayf has particular insight. He’s disabled—he had polio as a child. But even he and his translator have trouble coming up with the appropriate words to describe how his disability affects the way he walks.

“Not as an able-bodied person,” his translator says, then asks: “Is that right word I’m using now? Non-disabled person?…I’m really sorry!”

Sayf says until recently he simply hadn’t thought about the language of disability. “But now I’ve arrived [in London to cover the Paralympic Games]. And there are words I’ve never actually translated into Uzbek before. Now I know that those are the words I need to be using.”

Words like ‘non-disabled’ which Sayf has translated into Uzbek as ‘a person without limited abilities.’

But there’s a problem with some of the words that the BBC says should be avoided. In certain countries, words like ‘invalid’ and ‘handicapped’ are still widely and benignly used, by government officials as well as the general public.

“In our language, it’s still correct to use…invalid,” says Ukrainian journalist Andriy Kravets.

Ukraine’s lexicon is evolving though.

“There is a saying—if I translate it into English—‘people with limited abilities,’” says Kravets.

But what of places with disproportionately large numbers of disabled people, like Afghanistan? An estimated two million Afghans are disabled, most because of the decades of conflict there.

Tahir Qadiry with BBC Persian TV, which broadcasts in Afghanistan says disdain for the disabled is reflected in the language. One widely-used expression translates as ‘person with a defect.’

The news media use more respectful language, but Qadiry says it’s not always that easy to come up with the right translation.

“I know it makes sense in English,” he says. “But for us, especially in Persian when you translate it, it doesn’t make sense,”

So sometimes, local journalists reject imported, translated solutions in favour of local ones. Consider this Persian expression for ‘blind’: ‘Bright in the stomach.’ In English it sounds strange. But in cultures where the stomach is considered a focal point of the body—almost like a second brain—it works well.

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