This article appeared on February 12, 2017 on Medium.com and also featured on the Spread the word to end the word campaign’s site on the 14th of March 2018
Since I became the parent of a child with additional needs, #I’ve looked at the world through different eyes. I saw 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 insulting and demeaning. It’s endemic. It’s everywhere. And nobody bats an eyelid.
It seems to me there is an obvious double standard at play. For example, when Donald Trump openly mocked a physically disabled journalist, I saw someone decry Trump’s actions by calling him ‘the village idiot’. Similar insults were thrown at a politician who was (quite rightly) roundly condemned for using the phrase ‘n*gger in the woodpile’. People cherry-pick, consciously or unconsciously, the minority groups they deem worthy of having their human rights and civil liberties defended.
Getting people even to acknowledge that such a double standard exists is, I’ve found, like pushing water uphill while nailing jelly to a wall. Having a one-sided conversation with the world about it is, quite frankly, mentally and emotionally exhausting and sometimes I think it might be best if I just shut up about it. But here’s the thing: once you see the double standard you cannot un-see it, like a magic eye picture. Every single time I hear someone say something like ‘I hate him, he’s such a moron’ or ‘anyone who thinks that is a complete imbecile’, I feel a physical pain. I feel sick. You get a lot of ‘knife through the heart’ moments as a special needs parent, by the way, not because you believe there’s anything ‘wrong’ with your child but because you keep getting stark reminders of how negatively people often view or treat those who are ‘different’. It’s downright scary. So, I can’t just shut up about it or stop being so over-sensitive or whatever it is people think I’m doing: there is far too much at stake.
Instead, I am genuinely trying to understand why people are so resistant to the idea that there might be anything questionable about using this type of language. I am not trying to shame or embarrass anyone, by the way. And in case you think I’m sitting here shining my halo I will freely admit I have no right to claim the moral high ground, since I know for certain I used this kind of language myself, in all my intellectual pomp, for many years before my son came along.
I acknowledge that the vast majority of people are starting from a very different position to mine, and so the onus is on me to gain a proper appreciation of their point of view and, in turn, to give my own perspective in as clear, coherent and measured way as I can muster. Basically, I want to open up a sensible and rational conversation about something that is hugely important to me as a parent and advocate.
‘But what about freedom of speech?’
Freedom of speech is, of course, important. It’s a right enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and was transposed into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998. But is it not an absolute right. 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. All rights also carry responsibilities, and free speech carries with it the responsibility not to cause the ill-treatment of others. Even the most trenchant defenders of freedom of speech will concede that there are lines that should not be crossed. The reaction to neo Nazis parading in Charlottesville is a case in point.
While we’re at it, let’s also consider the United Nations 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, for instance, physical disability, ethnic background and sexual orientation 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 cannot be broadcast today because of the language used and attitudes displayed at that time. Words and phrases were used then that would make most people wince now — ‘golliwog’, ‘faggot’ or ‘spaz’, for instance. Somebody had to be the first to call out that kind of language and I am sure they initially met with resistance.
Language is dynamic and words associated with minority groupings tend to become corrupted over time. The words ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘idiot’ were in regular clinical use in the UK for many years 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. Then there was ‘mentally handicapped’, and so on and so forth. Nowadays, people are starting to shy away from ‘special’ because of how it is starting to be used with an ironic eye-roll. In time, the same is likely to happen with other terminology.
The ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ campaign, challenging the use of the word ‘retarded’, is to be commended and has had a positive impact. However, we need to go further, otherwise people will simply switch to using other terms, like ‘moron’, which are equally problematic.
I think the trick, therefore, is not to focus solely on particular words but on the general idea that the language you use may contribute to a negative view about a particular group of people. Even if you don’t regard a word as offensive or distasteful, it could be seen to be demeaning people with intellectual disability if it portrays them as inferior or flawed.
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, including all of your family and friends, it makes it difficult to challenge it. Such language has been normalised to the extent that it is incredibly difficult to persuade anyone that there can be any real harm in it.
But attitudes can and do change. Homosexuality was a criminal offence in England & Wales until 1967 and was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland (where I live) in 1982. It was 1990 before it was finally declassified as a mental illness by the World Health Organisation.
It’s not surprising to me, as an autistic woman, that most of the articles I’ve seen on the topic of pejorative language associated with learning disability have been authored by autistic individuals; I believe us to be less susceptible to the herd effect and, as a consequence, more likely to challenge the accepted wisdom and the status quo when it interferes with our strong sense of natural justice.
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. That is paternalistic and out-dated.
You need to be aware that, regardless of who it is you are directing your language towards or why, you are 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.
My biggest worry for the future is not that my child is somehow ‘defective’. I love him unconditionally, just the way he is and I would not change him. He’s amazing. No, the thing that keeps me awake at 3am is worrying how other people will treat my child when I’m no longer able to protect him due to my death or infirmity. We’ve all heard stories of children and adults with learning disability being mistreated. I see horrifying news reports on a regular basis. And the world these days is full of political rhetoric that makes my blood run cold. I am painfully — literally, painfully — aware of how vulnerable my child is and will be in the future and the types of harm that could befall him. And I don’t just want him to be safe. I want him to be able to enjoy all that life has to offer him. I want him to be treated with dignity, included and allowed to participate fully in the world. For that to happen, the double standard needs to stop.
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.
In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter if you agree with my arguments. Perhaps your brain is refusing to let you loosen your grip on a deeply embedded core belief, even in the face of what I consider to be reasonable, logical arguments. If you’ve read this far — and if you have, I thank you — and still disagree with my view that there is a problem with using words connected to learning disability, be at least aware that there are people out there who are deeply hurt by them and that they make the world a colder place for them or their loved one. That is reason enough to pause for thought, is it not?
It’s not about me winning an argument. It’s about asking you to be respectful towards those who are affected, both directly and indirectly, by language that can and does contribute towards prejudice and discrimination against the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
Sometimes it’s more important to be kind than to be ‘right’.
No more ‘buts’, please. It’s about respect.