This article appeared on September 28, 2017 on Pos’Ability Magazine
Since becoming the parent of a child with additional needs, I’ve looked at the world through different eyes. I noticed very quickly that casual conversation, internet debates and even Disney movies are peppered with pejorative language relating to learning disability. Words like ‘retarded’, ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’ or ‘idiot’ are tossed around freely despite being seen by many people with a learning disability and their carers as demeaning. It’s everywhere. And nobody bats an eyelid.
There is, I believe, an obvious double standard at play. For example, when Donald Trump openly mocked a physically disabled journalist, I saw someone retaliate by calling him ‘the village idiot’. People thereby cherry-pick, consciously or unconsciously, the minority groups whose human rights and civil liberties they will defend.
I have tried to understand why people do not see this double standard. I am not trying to shame or embarrass anyone – I simply want to have a rational conversation about something that has become hugely important to me as a parent.
‘But what about freedom of speech?’
Free speech is, of course, an important right. But it is a qualified right, which means that it may be limited if it interferes with other rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of disability. It also carries with it the responsibility not to cause the ill-treatment of others. Some lines should not be crossed – neo Nazis parading in Charlottesville being a case in point.
And let us not forget the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which includes in its General Principles: ‘Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity’.
That’s it. That’s exactly it. It’s not about freedom of speech. It’s about respect.
‘But it’s impossible these days to keep up with what’s “politically correct”. Why even try?’
There are terms associated with other minority groups that were deemed socially acceptable in the past but have since fallen out of favour. You are unlikely to hear words like ‘handicapped’ (with its origins in the idea of having to beg, cap in hand), or ‘negro’ used much nowadays. Many sitcoms from the 1970s are incapable of broadcast today due to changed public sensibilities.
The words ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘idiot’ were once in regular clinical use as part of a system of classifying cognitive impairment. As these words started to be used as terms of abuse and came to be considered offensive, they were abandoned in favour of levels of ‘mental retardation’ until the same thing happened again. Then there was ‘mentally handicapped’, and so on and so forth.
Language is dynamic and words associated with minority groupings tend to become corrupted over time. I think the trick, therefore, is not to get hung up on particular words but on the general idea of whether the language you use may contribute to a negative view about a particular group of people. Even if you don’t regard a particular word as offensive or distasteful, it could be said to be demeaning to people with an intellectual disability if it portrays them as inferior or flawed.
So it’s not about political correctness going too far. It’s about respect.
‘But everybody does it’
That doesn’t make it right. For example, there are still countries in the world in which homosexuality is regarded by most people as a perversion that needs to be punished. The herd effect, or ‘group think’, is a form of unconscious bias. If a critical mass of people believe a thing to be right, it makes it seem to be so. It can be difficult to let go of a deeply embedded core belief, even in the face of logical arguments.
But attitudes can and do change. Homosexuality was a criminal offence in England & Wales until 1967 and was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 1982. It was 1990 before it was finally declassified as a mental illness by the World Health Organisation. It’s not about what everybody else is doing. It’s about respect.
‘But I’m not directing it towards anyone with an actual intellectual disability’
Do I believe that people are deliberately setting out to offend or harm people with a learning disability? With the obvious exceptions – internet trolls and those with ultra-right sympathies – no, I do not. But simply not wishing a person with an intellectual disability harm is not enough.
You are still contributing to a body of opinion that learning disability makes a person inferior, wrong, less than you. You are placing a relative value on a group of human beings based on their personal characteristics. You are making level of intelligence the ultimate measure of someone’s worth as a human being. That is the slipperiest of slippery slopes. It echoes the philosophy behind the eugenics movement.
If you wouldn’t dream of using the word ‘wog’, because it’s demeaning to people of colour, and if you would never call someone a ‘faggot’ because it’s disrespectful to gay people, please think twice before using a word originally intended to denote cognitive impairment as a term of abuse or ridicule, even in jest. Even if you disagree that such words are questionable, consider the fact that there are many people who are deeply hurt by them because they make the world a colder place for them or their loved one.
It’s not about whether or not the person you are referring to is intellectually disabled. It’s about being aware that such language contributes towards prejudice and discrimination against a group of potentially vulnerable people. It’s about respect.
‘But what can I say instead?’
I get it. People are so accustomed to using these terms, it’s almost a reflex. But the English language is wonderfully rich and constantly evolving. Get creative. How about using ‘ignorant jerk’ or ‘obnoxious buffoon’ instead? You can easily find terms that are equally satisfying while not at the expense of any group of people if you try.
It’s about respect, people. It’s about respect.