Disability, language, and how everyone can improve
Recently, wonderful Sussex students have reminded me of just how acceptable it is to verbally bash the disabled.
The tour guide who compared his timid sociability to Asperger’s syndrome, the girl who asked for my assistance with her ‘retarded’ searching skills to locate her bike, and the quizmaster who branded one team a ‘bunch of retards’ due to their excessive loud noise, all led me to reflect on the position of this language.
Extreme drunkenness is being ‘spasticated’, drug induced catatonia is ‘monging out’, even severe stupidity is ‘retarded’
Sadly these are everyday, acceptable phrases in our vocabulary.
Disability is important to Sussex, which provides specific housing, advisors and sport for the disabled.
Therefore it is imperative that we keen essayists all participating in a ‘character forming’ module autocorrect our language towards groups such as disability.
One would assume that rationality would yield the most effect in the fight against those dissing the disabled.
Yet, for each occasion when I have requested a refrain of such language, a repetition occurs almost instantly, usually proceeded with an empty apology: “Sorry, I forgot”.
They have not forgotten the offensive nature of these remarks; just that someone who is offended is present as they uttered it.
Condoning this language reveals extreme apathy: people just don’t seem to care that the colloquial use of the word retarded equates disability with inferiority.
Detailing dire disabled conditions proves more effective. Graphic descriptions of lumping an 80kg human around and constantly cleaning his excrement make my converser contort in angst, guilt and sympathy.
They become unable to extricate depressing images of disability with this brand of insult; and therefore less likely to repeat them as it becomes a conscious choice rather than the acceptable “habit” that it is often excused as.
Wheeling my brother in public exposes society’s ambivalence with disability and, specifically, a paradox in the attitudes between children and their parents.
Generally, adults will avert their eyesight to practically deny the existence of disability, yet children clumsily gawk in a concoction of confusion, shock and curiosity.
My mum tries to harness this wonderment through encouraging conversation between gazing children and my brother.
However this attempt to familiarise children with disability seems unidirectional, coming only from the side of the disabled. Typically the child’s parents teach merely to “stop staring”; to ignore the matter rather than explore it.
Hence the average person is not sufficiently exposed to, or taught about disability.
If the parent urged a mere “hello” to my brother , the child would learn that the disabled are not all that different, and the awkwardness of the parent and child would evaporate with the realisation that a disabled person is just another person.
Yet as long as the parents pass naivety onto their children, the disability divide will continue.
This ambivalence permeates our media which penetrates our character. The awkward are reassured that their ignorance is acceptable.
While Frankie Boyle explicitly stated that those with Down’s Syndrome should die early, Ricky Gervais persistently attempted to appropriate the word “mong”; naïve to its offensive history.
A quick search of Kevin Kilbane on Twitter shows thousands who believe him to be “easily offended” by ‘mong’ chants by Tottenham fans.
Those of this belief must comprehend the fact that using a word in a derogatory sense makes it inherently offensive to its subject.
Calling an able-bodied person retarded is offensive to the disabled as calling a straight person gay is to a homosexual person.
Associating a person’s character with inferiority makes it an insult.
Fortunately, exposure is increasing via disabled actors such as Liz Carr in Silent Witness and R.J Mitte in Breaking Bad, sporting greats like Ellie Simmonds and disability themed shows such as The Last Leg.
In this proliferation of awareness society must embrace the issue, show the similarities, celebrate the differences and, importantly, encourage interaction between the child and their disabled counterpart.
Free speech is important. Every person has the right to say every word.
Yet, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
If your mate deserves shaming by all means insult them relentlessly until your words have rendered them lifeless. Just ensure that they are the only ones you are insulting.