Disability, Language and Respect – Blogging Against Disablism Day


Blogging against Disablism Day is 1 May and it is an initiative that has been running for five years. Diary of a Goldfish is collating all the posts that reference this and I’d recommend reading through them.

I don’t identify myself as disabled. Yet. It is something that is always there in the background for all of us who might not be feel disabled at presence whether due to an illness or injury yet to come or through the experiences of a family member – a parent or a child.

My father identified himself as disabled and the disability movement was very important to him. He found a voice and he found unbelievable amounts of support from peer groups that he was involved with. He also battled with the institutional discrimination in ‘systems’ which were designed almost to make things as complicated as possible.

There is no ‘hierarchy of discrimination’ in my eyes or at least, let me qualify that by saying that there shouldn’t be but there is a sense that some of ‘more acceptable’ than others.

Look at the bullying of people who have learning disabilities for example. The differential in funding arrangements between those who are under and over 65 where being an older adult with a disability that may be ‘age related’ leads to a much more narrowly dispensed service – perhaps because voices are not heard as loudly and the differences in the protection from abuse that exist in the law (and in public attitudes) to abuse of adults who might need support of institutions to protect them and children. Would we allow some of the stories about abusive care environments to be brushed out of the media if children were involved rather than adults? I suspect not.

Anyone who says that discrimination doesn’t exist in services has never had experience of working in services and anyone who says discrimination doesn’t exist from professionals who should know a whole lot better probably hasn’t been able to sit in an office or a meeting and listened to some of the conversations that travel around and the language that is used.

So my minimal contribution to this day is going to be about the importance of language and respect to discrimination.

‘Political Correctness’ has a bad ‘reputation’ because we allow it to be hijacked by the right wing press and commentators and to allow others to determine what is offensive for us.

For discrimination to be challenged, language has to be challenged and not only by those who are affected by the conditions that are being ridiculed or minimised. By everyone.

Politically Correct? Let’s lose the ‘political’ and make changed language normal language. It happens with some words over time and words create perceptions. It might not seem like much to change from talking about someone being handicapped or disabled, having a mental disability to a learning disability – but it is about the people about whom terms are coined to take control of the ways in which they are referred to.

Recently I attended training about the move from using the words ‘vulnerable adult’ in terms of safeguarding to ‘adult at risk’. It emphasises the importance of not using adjectives to determine a persons worth or value. We don’t talk of ‘a schizophrenic man’ or ‘a demented woman’ so why would we refer to a ‘vulnerable’ adult?

Does that make me ‘too PC’? I’m sure I’ll be accused of such but think about the way in which adding the adjective to the description of the person qualifies the importance of the ‘disability’ as a part of that person’s identity. If we talk about a man with schizophrenia – the person comes first.  A woman with dementia – her personhood is highlighted before a condition which may affect her and equally ‘being vulnerable’ shouldn’t label a person before any other facts are known.

So my contribution to the day – think before you speak and challenge discrimination in language. In your office, in your home, in the street and in the press.

I am proud to be politically correct. I honestly think language makes a difference. It is about respect.

8 thoughts on “Disability, Language and Respect – Blogging Against Disablism Day

  1. Great post. I arrived here from BADD2011. I am a social worker too and work in the disability field. I constantly correct people and educate others.

  2. Language is so important. There’s even some debate now as to whether it’s having language that enables us to reason – so YES to your approach to changed language. Just ponder on the problems arising from the lack in English of gender neutral pronouns, for example.

  3. Good post! My own thoughts on Vulnerability: http://dwgism.livejournal.com/5772.html It’s not just a question of changing the words, we have to change the attitudes they drive. Changing the words is an important part of the process, but we need to push beyond that into attitudes. And ultimately that’s what being PC is all about, simply believing and living by the attitude that everyone is your equal and entitled to be treated as such.

  4. I am a social worker too! But in the US.
    I do use vulnerable person but not like a noun, more like the adjective it should be. I always find language fascinating and challenging to discuss – there’s the huge discussion about the R word and I totally agree that we need to become more aware of what words mean and how they are used.I totally support that. But there’s also a part of me that resists sanitization of life and that is what I would define as PC- do I want life to be pretty and sweet and respectful all of the time- probably not due to me being me, a bit irreverent of even GOD:)
    A thought provoking post- thanks!

  5. Thanks all for your comments and contributions towards BADD. I think it’s important that it isn’t just picked up by those who are affected personally currently by disability issues but that the points of discrimination and solidarity are also raised by those who don’t have a current experience to relate.
    I can understand the point about not wanting to ‘over-sanitise’ life and I’m not saying I have the only response but I think we need to listen to people who may be offended by language and adjust appropriately. I worry that there is a pressure to ‘accept’ unacceptable language and labels for fear of being criticised for saying ‘you are offending me’. It’s an argument that will, no doubt, go on and on!

  6. We have had a dispute,lasting two years now,with a government dept which dispenses financial support to people with disabilities. In their reports they refer to themselves by the positions they hold in the department, each word capitalised. We are referred to as ‘the user’and the ‘users wife.’ Do we mind? Oh yes. Can we do anything about it? No.

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