ArmeniaNow.com - Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 October 17, 2003 




Words to Live By: Journalists get a lesson in etiquette concerning disabled



"People think since a person is in a wheelchair he or she can not earn money," says Armen Alaverdyan, the head of "Unison" organization for Support of People with Special Needs. He disagrees with the term applied to disabled as people with limited abilities".

Crippled. Handicapped. Invalid.

The words are a throwback to days before being "politically correct" became the standard by which the West invented such phrases as "physically challenged".

And they are the words most often still applied to the impaired, by Armenian media.

This week a seminar, "Mass Media and Coverage of Issues Concerning People With Disabilities", aimed at presenting a more enlightened attitude.

Six non governmental organizations (NGO) were gathered through the initiative of the Open Society Institute and invited 20 journalists for a discussion intended to establish a modernized vocabulary. At issue is how to convey compassion and mercy without humiliation. Further, NGOs voiced their concerns that general coverage of disability issues is often misinformed and lacking etiquette.

In particular, journalists were asked to avoid terms such as "cripple" "victim" "defect" "sick" but use instead the terms such as "physically disabled" or "people with special needs".

Though the organizers said they did not blame journalists for information but rather society for its inadequate attitude towards disabled, the discussion turned into a hot debate. The journalists in turn said that in most cases the organizations dealing with disabled do not provide them with appropriate information, but agreed that it is a matter of inherited culture.

The 70 year history of the Soviet Union has left its trace on the community attitude to disabled people, who were segregated from the society. The result is a society to which lives of the disabled are a little-known and perhaps even frightening aspect of life during independence.

The public interests in disability issues arose in Armenia after the devastating earthquake in 1988, which killed 26,000, and made thousands of others disabled.

Arpine Abhrahamyan thinks that journalists do not consider the disabled as full members of the community.

With independence came an initiative to bring Armenia into compliance with international standards of human rights, including attitudes toward the disabled.

Old attitudes haven't yielded, however, as outdated labels are still commonly applied.

Whether called "disabled" or "people with special needs", the wheel-chair bound are still stared at and hardly a building or street is designed with their needs in mind. (Officially, there are more than 110,000 disabled in Armenia, including veterans of the Afghan and Karabakh wars.)

Armen Alaverdyan, 39, one of the initiators of the seminar, the head of "Unison" organization for Support of People with Special Needs knows his issue well.

He was 22 when his legs were paralyzed, and since has been met with ignorance and curiosity.

"When I go to the market some merchants are suggesting me fruits for free thinking they are doing me a great favor. People think since a person is in a wheelchair he or she can not earn money," Alaverdyan says.

Alaverdyan says despite attempts to make Yerevan's recently repaved streets more accessible, the effort has not been a success.

"My transport is a taxi," he says, "because no public bus nor the subway is adapted for the wheelchair," he says.

Alaverdyan disagrees with the term applied to disabled as "people with limited abilities", saying "people with special needs" is preferred.

"If for example a disabled school child in a wheelchair is a chess champion and his classmate who is not disabled but a pupil with only the lowest mark in his record, which of two is 'with limited abilities'?" Alaverdyan questioned.

Another organizer of the round table, the head of the "Salvation" union for disabled children Arpine Abrahamyan said that the different NGOs engaged in disability issues play an active role in the development of civil society. However the mass media can make their activity more effective.

"Many journalists are still unprepared to appreciate people with disabilities as full members of the community," Abrahamyan said.

"To make their story impressive they are using wrong terminology and words which are an insult to the disabled. The journalists can call a person a 'fool' meaning an autistic person. Of course they do not do it to purposefully insult, simply they do not know the appropriate words," she said.

The organizers of the seminar distributed booklets to journalists containing information about the general rules of disability etiquette. They promised to organize more seminars to help journalists to challenge stereotypes and to acquaint the reader with the accomplishments gained by the Armenian disabled and their organizations for the last decade.


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