Confined to a Wheelchair

Prof. Charles Xavier

Prof. Charles Xavier

Sometimes messages expand our thoughts and sometimes messages narrow them.

A relative pointed out journalists are fond of saying, for example, Lady Gaga is “confined to a wheelchair,” as reported recently in the Huffington Post (UK).

But a wheelchair is far from confining for most folks with disabilities.

We need a prod about how our everyday talk reveals underlying prejudices.

Not all Dutch uncles are stingy and most blondes aren’t dumb.

This week I spoke about message framing at the Crime Victim Law Conference in Portland.

One participant bristled at the way a news-writer said a woman was assaulted by a masked man.

What’s wrong with that, I asked.

Journalists should instead report, “A masked man assaulted a woman.”

She said the re-wording focusses on the perpetrator rather than the victim.

It is a subtle difference, she admitted. In one case, your attention turns to the person who committed a crime.

In the other example, you focus on the woman as the subject of a crime.

Does it make a difference?

Hard to know without concrete evidence to show wording alone influences how we think.

Still, my colleague David Ritchie and I contend that some phrases slip past our cognitive scrutiny.

And when messages slip under our radar, we pay little heed.

The result? We don’t question a phrase like “confined to a wheelchair.”

And we should question the grammar.

Picture of Prof. Charles Xavier from Marvel Comics at


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, science, science communication, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Confined to a Wheelchair

  1. I think we often use words and phrases that are in everyday use without thinking about what we are saying. On the other hand, if we think about the ramifications of every word out of our mouths, we might never speak. And that might not be a bad thing in some cases. 🙂


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