What It Should Have Been: The Inaugural Edition

By Alvan Yap

DPA is starting a new fortnightly column of sorts, titled “What it should have been”. Named after the corrections section traditionally found in newspapers, it will compile all instances of inappropriate words/terms used to describe people with disabilities that appeared in print – whether online or on hard copy – over the preceding two weeks.

This is not intended to be a ‘name and shame’ list. Far from it. After all, we believe fervently in maintaining good relations with the government ministries, other VWOs and the mass media. Without their goodwill and cooperation, DPA will not be able to advocate effectively.

Rather, we wish to educate and raise public awareness of this long-running issue, as well as encourage more responsibility and vigilance on the part of media professionals – such as journalists, editors and bloggers – when writing about or reporting on people with disabilities.

At this point, we also wish to take the opportunity to praise and thank the local media – both mainstream and independent ones – for its largely positive and regular coverage of disability issues and personalities. A look at DPA’s Facebook will show numerous examples.

DPA will not claim to provide full coverage of all local news publications and sites. We are a small organisation and lack the resources to do so – spotting errors in print is a time-consuming and labour-intensive task. For a start, the focus will be on the most popular local media, both the mainstream and independent ones, and both online and offline.

Since MDA has already (and fortuitously) came up the list of 10 local news sites with the largest readerships, we will take them as a reference point. Websites, blogs and Facebook pages which will also come under scrutiny are the major disability-related ones, such as those belonging to MSF, SDSC, NCSS, and so on.

On the print media side, the Straits Times – Singapore’s most influential national daily and which DPA has a subscription to – will inevitably be covered. Other newspapers to be monitored are TODAY and MyPaper.

We very much welcome contributions and feedback from readers and members. If you disagree with the corrections, do feel free to write in to us. And if you come across a case of improper, disrespectful or offensive language used to describe people with disabilities in  local media, blogs or publications, just email us the details – citing the source, date, usage issue/context. (DPA itself won’t be exempted – if you, gentle reader, catch us using discriminatory, racist, sexist or otherwise inappropriate words, do call us out too.) We’ll be happy to credit you as the source or maintain your anonymity, depending on your preference.

DPA will then post the list on our Facebook page and on this blog once every fortnight, and then send a link to the publications or organisations which have been featured. We trust they will take it in the intended spirit – it’s not a witch-hunt, but a sharing and learning experience.

Here’s to “correcting” our way to a more inclusive Singapore.

Happy reading!


Resources On Disability Terminology
Various disability terminology lists and dictionaries are available online. The links below, though not exhaustive, should prove useful to terminology scholars, linguistic fiends and all who are for positive, inclusive and affirmative language to describe people with disabilities.

First up is DPA’s own long-running Dictionary of Disability Terminology, free for download in PDF format.

SG Enable’s Live Enabled website has a concise list of commonly misused words and terms.

The US-based National Center on Disability and Journalism has a similar and more comprehensive online Disability Style Guide.

From Victoria state government, Australia, we have a lavishly illustrated and sleekly produced publication titled “Reporting it right: Media guidelines for portraying people with a disability”. It is written in crystal clear prose and very much worth a download.

The International Labour Organization (an agency of the United Nations) has an illustrated, reader-friendly publication, with the self-explanatory title of  “Media Guidelines for The Portrayal of Disability” freely available.


What It Should Have Been: Edition #1

Source/date: Straits Times, 25 June 2013
Article title: OBS keen to rope in mentors from the disabled

Original line:
The Singapore Management University undergraduate is wheelchair bound as he suffers from congenital myopathy, a form of muscular disease.

The Singapore Management University undergraduate uses a wheelchair as he has congenital myopathy, a form of muscular disease.

Why the change? This presents two extremely common linguistic malfunctions. Let’s see what SG Enable’s ‘Live Enabled’ disability terminology page says

Phrases such as “suffers from” and “afflicted by” carry negative connotations. In most cases, you can simply say that a person “has” a certain disability.

For their users, wheelchairs allow greater freedom of movement. Avoid terms such as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”. Rather, say that a person “uses a wheelchair”.

Just to chip in that ‘bound’ means to tie up. Wheelchairs users are not tied up in (or down to) their wheelchairs. Nor are they confined to it; they can actually – gasp! – get out of their wheelchairs, to go to bed, when in the washroom, and so on.


Straits Times, 29 June 2013:
Hey listen, when life gives you lemons…

Mr Jeremy Lim, 23, who is wheelchair­-bound and suffers from “brittle bones”, is also featured.

Mr Jeremy Lim, 23, who has “brittle bones” and is a wheelchair user, is also featured.

Why? As explained above.

Also, note this sentence in the same article: “Without physiotherapy, my legs would have been really weak and I could have even been wheelchair­-bound,” Ms Syahidah said.

As it is a verbatim quote, it should not be changed. Some people with disabilities have their own preferred terms/words to describe themselves, or may not be aware the term they used is inappropriate.


Straits Times, 2 July 2013:
Church worker pocketed $380k

Wheelchair-bound Lim Seng Hoo, 56, issued cheques to himself, took out money by filling in cash withdrawal forms and used church funds to pay his bills.

Lim Seng Hoo, 56, issued cheques to himself, took out money by filling in cash withdrawal forms and used church funds to pay his bills.

Why? In the context of the news – a court case involving embezzlement – there is absolutely no need to mention his disability. Compare it to Channel NewsAsia’s report which omits this detail. (I’ll be happy to email over the ST article to those who wish to double-check this.)

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, it is necessary; still, the correct term should be.. let’s say it together: Wheelchair user.



  1. Where the right terminology is used, it’ll be good to also highlight it In a recent article on “Fewer elderly suing their children for maintenance” in the The Straits Times,the term ‘wheelchair user’ was used. However, I just read some of the former CEL’s publications on care-giving and the term ‘wheelchair bound’ was used in one of the booklets.

    1. Yes, the newspapers have been improving in this aspect. The recent coverage of the final rollout of the London cabs – in the ST, TODAY and MyPaper – all used the correct terms – wheelchair, using a wheelchair, etc.

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