Allan Mayer’s Weblog

Political Correctness and Learning Disabilities: A Case of Deja Vu

Posted on: April 29, 2009

The field of learning disabilities has a long association with Political Correctness.

Although political correctness if often- and in my opinion rightly- derided, it has  its place in the history of learning disabilities in that it consciously and forcefully reminds us that the way we talk about people, the labels we give to them, influence how we see them, how we group them and ultimately how we behave toward them.

As an aside, I can remember the confusion I felt when I sat next to a colleague who just happened to be black (it is important to the story) who  put two fingers on the table and said ‘What’s that?’ I said I didn’t know, and she said ‘a kit-kat.’ That was twenty years ago. The confusion I felt then is mirrored in recent times by the use of the word ‘nigger’ by rap artists at a time when white people don’t dare to use it in any context.

But back to learning disabilities…  Where I think that PC has actually made a valuable contribution…

When I first came into learning disability services in the 1980’s, the PC movement was in full swing, and the tabloids were presented with so many gifts, such as the London Borough where school children were taught baa baa green sheep in order to avoid the use of the word ‘black.’

As a worker in social care it was impressed upon you that you were not to say ‘The Mentally Handicapped’ but ‘People With a Mental Handicap.’ The former lumped people together, defined them by their hadicap, whereas the latter put people first and stressed that the handicap just happened to be something which they had.

I can go along with that. These days we talk about people with learning or intellectual disabilities. It is important that language moves on. If it didn’t, we would still be calling people spastics, mongols, idiots or imbeciles.

All of which leads me to a conversation which went on in a meeting I attended earlier this week. We were discussing a piece of literature produced by the service I work for, in which the phrase ‘service user’ was used. Someone asked if there was a better phrase, as the word ‘user’ had other connotations. At other times, learning disability services have used the word ‘clients,’ but this could equally have connotations. Finally, the suggestion was made that the word ‘people’ would be best.

To me there was an added dimension to all of this, in that it mirrored exactly a conversation that I included in ‘Tasting the Wind,’ which was itself based on a staff meeting item of over twenty years ago, (if you don’t believe me have a look at: http://www.allanmayer.com/Tasting_the_Wind_1-6.pdf or look at p.34 in ‘Tasting the Wind.’)

There must be a lesson in this. It could be that I am getting old, that I’ve been in this profession so long that the same things are coming around again.

Or it could be a demonstration that consciousness of language has over the last two decades become entrenched in our understanding of what we do.

Language is a powerful tool. In literature, Orwell’s 1984 provides a satirical window onto how governments can control the masses through controlling language. And in Nazi Germany the stereotyping of groups through language contributed to the eventual nightmare which was the holocaust.

The discussion of language and the labels that we use for people is now, as it was in the Politically Correct 80’s, a sign that equality and awareness of Human Rights is alive and well. Once we stop questioning the words we use, and that our writers, comedians, and politicians use, we are on a slippery slope.

And it is a slope at the end of which language not only offends, but kills.

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