Language and Disability

When it first appeared on the Twitterverse that Ricky Gervais had been casually throwing about the word “mong”; I sighed and irritably began to mutter under my breath about the way that celebrities seem to get away with saying whatever they like and if it doesn’t go down too well, then it’s just free publicity. After all, it is better to be hated and appear in the pages of national newspapers than to go unnoticed. Isn’t it?However, after reading the interview with disability rights campaigner Nicky Clark (here) I got the impression of a very naive and uneducated man when it comes to the language of disability. I like to think that is the case anyway.

Surely the moral of this story is not that we should all compile our detest and frustration of ‘broken Britain’ into a big ball of doom that we propel in the face of the British comedian/actor/writer, through assuming that he is the only person in the world who didn’t understand that “mong” is offensive slang for people with Down’s Syndrome. I believe this highlights the vast number of people of all ages and backgrounds who have no idea about the correct and offensive terminology regarding disability.

In the UK the term handicapped is deemed offensive. I have been told the word originates from “hand in cap” suggesting begging so quite rightly people with physical impairments resent the word. However, I have seen this word used on a few occasions in the Metro when refering to a person with a disability. How can we really expect the general public to be educated properly on language when there are bad examples all around.

Some may argue that all this terminology is political correctness gone mad and partly I’m in agreement. It was perhaps a couple of years ago that I attended a training afternoon focusing on correct and incorrect language use regarding disability. Some were obvious to me such as not using the words “spastic” and “wheelchair bound” (although I recently saw this term describing an actor in a review in The Stage newspaper!) As language is forever changing, it can be difficult to keep up with correct terminology which causes confusion. Scope have written a great leaflet, although they admit it is out of date as they now use the term “learning disability” on their website to replace “learning difficulty”. It is definitely worth checking out.

I think a lot of the time incorrect terminology is used out of fear and the lack of distinction between the medical and social model of disability. For example if you have a friend, let’s call her Jane who has cerebal palsy you could say to people “I have a friend who has cerebal palsy.” If someone wants to ask more about that condition you could probably elaborate sensitively. “Jane uses a wheelchair and a device that provides a voice for what she wants to say.

However, if you don’t know Jane’s medical condition and want to describe her to someone you risk becoming flustered and could come out with something like “she’s wheelchair bound, you can’t understand her when she speaks so she used a device that talks for her, but despite suffering from a disability, Jane is a lovely lady.” *cringe*

In a strange way, I’m glad you screwed up Mr Gervais, it has highlighted that more needs to be done to increase disability awareness and the language surrounding it.

Interesting article from Scope regarding language here.

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