The Globe and Mail came under fire last December for an article deemed derogatory by some of its readers. The front-page story appeared on November 27, 1989, under the disturbing headline, “Shuffling cripples, retarded bring look of Dante’s Inferno to life in Chinese village.” The article by the Globe’s correspondent in China, Jan Wong, was seen as a setback for those who have tried to correct unfavorable depictions of people with disabilities by the media.

“The media have for the most part accepted responsibility for avoiding terminology that sustains harmful stereotypes,” wrote Shirley Collins, Ontario Minister Responsible for Disabled Persons, in a letter to the editor. “People with disabilities ask that you accept the same responsibility when dealing with their issues.”

The Globe published eight letters to the editor, four criticizing the article and four commending Wong’s use of “vivid, concrete language.”

Hard realities, one reader insisted, require hard words.

The hard realities in the village Wong visited are such that one third of the population is mentally disabled. Abject poverty, intermarriage among close kin and other factors perpetuate debilitating conditions in Gansu province, and it was only at the request of local officials that Wong was allowed to witness the plight of these people.

Shortly after Wong’s article appeared, John Allemang published his response to the debate in his weekly column at The Globe, Word Play. He admitted that while some of the terminology used (cretins, cripples, imbecility) was questionable, the suggested euphemisms (persons with mobility disabilities, otherly abled) were unfit to print. “I dislike the word cretins,” Allemang wrote, “but I think it is even more harmful to impose the genteel phrase ‘persons with developmental disabilities’.”

Lew Gloin, who writes a similar column for The Toronto Star called Words, took the same position. Without mention of the controversy sparked by the Globe article, he discussed the issue of what to call special interest groups on December 17.

He took aim at Word Choices, the “lexicon of preferred terms” published by the Office for Disabled Persons. Gloin acknowledged in his column that “sexist language, obviously, has to go,” but the terms preferred by disabled persons rubbed him the wrong way. “It goes against the grain for newspaper people to use more words than they have to.” Period.

Back at The Globe, assistant managing editor Earle Gill sought to end the debate by circulating an internal memo. “We owe it to our readers to convey information accurately,” he wrote. “At the same time, we should respect the particular sensibilities of other readers.”

Gill offered guidelines for the use of medical and nonmedical terminology in articles about people with disabilities and suggested that editors ask themselves whether they would like to be described by the potentially offensive language in question.

The debate over word usage obscured a greater offence, however, one which Allemang and Gill did not address. Even if all the offending adjectives were replaced by the politically correct alternatives, the tone of Wong’s article would remain the same. Readers are still left with Dante’s Inferno.

Wong’s defenders claim that the purpose of the article, ostensibly to bring international aid to Gansu, justifies the means; the detractors say that sensationalistic methods designed to solicit charity are insulting.

It all stems from a “warped view” of people with disabilities, says Sandra Carpenter, manager of the Handicapped Employment Program with the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The media reflect a deeply rooted ethic, she says, that mythologizes people with disabilities either in terms of “hero worship or human tragedy.”

Widely held misconceptions of the disabled will die hard, but stigmatizing language can be eliminated. “People can’t call us anything they want and get away with it,” says John Feld, Legal Communications Coordinator at the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped in Toronto. He believes that in the wake of the recent Globe controversy progress has been made.

“There was a reaction [to Wong’s article ],” he says. “It’s a sign that people who are disabled are standing up for their rights.”