UCSF ad with the wording "Several years ago, Ron Pettway used a wheelchair. Now he's up and running. UCSF was the first to use bone marrow transplants to treat severe neuromuscular disorders."

UCSF Changes Ad Wording to Respect People with Disabilities

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As a disability rights activist, one of the projects I’ve been developing deals with the language of disability. Inspired by the media watchdog arm of GLAAD, I have been developing a plan to contact journalists who used inappropriate language to describe individuals of varying abilities, offering information on appropriate terminology and asking journalists to change inappropriate wording. As yet, I have not implemented this project full-scale.

In the fall of 2013, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital rolled out a city-wide ad campaign with inspirational stories of children whose health problems have been “fixed.” While this “you are incomplete and need to be fixed” attitude can be problematic, contributing to the perception of disability as “imperfection” and “insufficiency,” most featured stories recounted acute conditions necessitating medical intervention for improved quality of life or survival.

However, one of the ad-stories said this particular individual “was wheelchair-bound, but now he’s up and running.” Since “wheelchair-bound” is a derogatory term, this wording is problematic. According the National Center on Disability and Journalism:

“Avoid using ‘confined to a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair-bound’ as it implies a judgment.
A person is not bound to a wheelchair; a wheelchair enables a person to be mobile.
Keep in mind that a wheelchair can be a source of freedom and independence and that people who use wheelchairs might otherwise be confined to their home or their bed.
It is preferable to use ‘person who uses a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair user.'”

The ad was emblazoned in many locations in the Embarcadero and Civic Center BART stations, including in the lobbies and in the eyeline of waiting commuters.

In keeping with my commitment to change the language of ability, I contacted UCSF’s PR department and politely asked them to change the wording of the ad. I included the link to the NCDJ style guide and the information above, as well as the following information:

“As this ad is featured in BART stations, which is a primary mode of transit for individuals of varied abilities in the Bay Area, this phrasing may have the unintended consequence of alienating individuals with disabilities and their families and friends.”

I closed with an offer to assist them in any way they needed.

The next day UCSF’s director of marketing responded: they were going to change the wording and replace the ads. Though thrilled, I recognized that this could be lip service, so I conferred with some colleagues in the Anthropology and Social Change Department at CIIS on how to hold UCSF accountable to their words.

I then responded to the marketing director, asking what changes in the ad we could expect and by what date. I closed with a plan to contact the media with Sara Maria Acevedo to talk about the ad, saying that by knowing the date we’d be able to show that UCSF was willing to change the wording.

The marketing director responded immediately with a detailed timeline, and I can confirm that so far they have stuck to it. By the end of October, the ads with inappropriate wording were removed from the BART stations and changed on the website. The campaign expanded to Montgomery BART in November, and will include the edited wording: “Several years ago, Ron Pettway used a wheelchair. Now he’s up and running. UCSF was the first to use bone marrow transplants to treat severe neuromuscular disorders.”

I’m very pleased by UCSF’s willingness to change the ad, and by the additional alterations they made beyond removing the problematic phrase. In specifying the treatment of an acute condition, the ad no longer implies that everyone who uses a wheelchair needs to be “fixed”. This more empowering version of the ad, in its way, moves towards the goal of greater public understanding of people with disabilities.

Many thanks to my colleagues in the CIIS Anthropology and Social Change department for their expertise and support.

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