A Mistake We Made About Albinism—and Why the Words We Choose Matter

Edit note: The following is a guest post by Choices contributor Jane Bianchi, who frequently writes our Different Like You and Inspired Like You stories. She is formerly an editor at Seventeen and Family Circle magazines.

 

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I had the pleasure of writing the Different Like You feature in the February issue of Choices magazine. The article is about a 16-year-old girl named Elizabeth Armstrong from Tyler, Texas, who was born with no pigment in her hair or skin.

After the story was published, I was bummed when I got an email from Elizabeth, who liked most of the story but wished that we had referred to her as a “person with albinism” as opposed to “albino.”

As Elizabeth politely and elegantly wrote:

 

Calling someone an Albino is actually an insult to them because it is like calling them a different species or something. I know you probably did not know that because it is used so often, but if there is any way it can be changed, that would be great.

I was, of course, heartbroken that I had accidentally hurt Elizabeth’s feelings. She has dealt with bullies her whole life—the last thing I wanted to do was insult her. It was, unfortunately, too late to correct the language in the print edition of the magazine. However, my editors and I immediately updated the digital edition and decided to write this blog post to share Elizabeth’s important point.

In recent years, as a journalist, I have noticed a growing number of requests to change the way people with disorders or diseases are described. For example, some people feel strongly that “autistic” should be changed to “person with autism” and that “diabetic” should be changed to “person with diabetes.” The argument is that using the former makes it sound like the disorder or disease solely defines the person.

But it’s worth noting that not everyone agrees about what terminology is politically correct. There are people who are adamant about using “autistic,” like writer Jean Winegardner. On the site dLife.com that covers all things diabetes, you’ll find a wide variety of opinions on the topic. The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation also acknowledges that there isn’t a clear consensus. It states:

In the albinism community, opinions vary on the use of the word ‘albino.’ While some find it to be an extraordinarily offensive term, others feel the label carries neutral or even empowering connotations…Some people with albinism grew up in families or communities that used the word ‘albino’ often and learned at an early age that there was no shame or negativity in referring to themselves as such.

But the site goes on to say that when in doubt, it’s best to play it safe: “To most in the albinism community, the term ‘person with albinism’ will always be a kinder, gentler, less shocking term.”

Language is always evolving and this experience served as a good reminder to me to tread carefully when writing about anyone with a disorder or disease. I want to publicly thank Elizabeth for bringing this up and apologize to her for using a word that made her feel marginalized. I hope that parents and teachers will show kids this article and use it as an opportunity to start a conversation about how the words that we choose matter.