Discussing the disabled: Readers' views

Last week, Ian Birrell wrote calling for an end to the casual use of words such as 'retard' that reveal the bigotry with which disabled people are treated. Here, readers offer their views

This shouldn't be acceptable

My sister has learning disabilities; she had encephalitis as a baby. She will never live an independent life, being more like a very bright, articulate young child than a woman of 36. She is acutely aware of what she cannot do and that she is different; a point rammed home a few years ago by the nurse trying to find a vein for taking a blood test. On the third attempt to find a vein, she told my mother, who was trying to comfort my sister, that "they don't feel pain like we do". If we cannot expect compassion in the caring services, then precisely where can we expect it?

The case of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter, the murder in the north east of England of a young man with Down syndrome, plus other cases, actually made me feel for once that it was better for my sister that she wasn't as able as some people with learning disabilities; she should actually be safer, as she will need permanent residential care.

I am also appalled that the language used every day in connection with people with disabilities – specifically learning disabilities – is seen as acceptable. For instance: an edition of Have I Got News For You in which Michael Aspel used the word "retard" to describe Big Brother contestants; an episode of Front Row on Radio Four last Christmas where stand-up comedians defended using the same word, plus the word "spastic".

I'm still angry with myself that I didn't complain when these were broadcast. I'm far more angry, however, that I should have to.

Ruth Costello, Chelmsford, Essex

The damage words can do

This was an important reminder that the careless use of the word "retard" causes deep distress to the most vulnerable members of our society. It is bad enough when the word is used on the streets in a derogatory and mean way, but what is shocking is its increasingly trendy use and acceptance in the media, in politics, and in pop culture.

As the father of a bright and charming three-and-a-half-year-old boy with Down syndrome, I was astounded when a comedian, commenting on Sarah Palin's children said, "One's got Down's syndrome and the other volunteered for Iraq. So that's two retards out of five." And referring to the child with Down's continued, "How can America get behind her when even God obviously hates her". This was broadcast on BBC radio (6 Music) late last year. It was a live show, but the presenter didn't offer an apology.

To make matters worse, although Ofcom declared this a breach of the broadcasting code, no action was taken (compare this to the punishment doled out over Russell Brand's comments about sleeping with Andrew Sachs's granddaughter). The statement issued by Ofcom said that the network attracts a predominantly adult audience and that regular listeners who are familiar with the irreverent style of its presenters and guests many not necessarily find "retard" offensive.

Wow. I wonder if the same relatively relaxed view would be taken if referring to someone as a "nigger" or "paki" on air, however adult the audience is?

The word "retard" is just as wounding to, at the very least, the 10 per cent of the population for whom living with a learning disability is a reality. The point is that we must recognise the damage that is being done if we remain silent as our colleagues, our politicians, our media and our entertainers unwittingly use damaging language. Let's take our example from The Special Olympics in America, who are asking people to pledge never to use the word "retard". Let's go one step further – email your friends asking them to do the same. It affects all of us.

Lou Stein, Email supplied

People just don't get it

I am physically disabled and I am sick and tired of being discriminated against. I'm an activist, and since people don't seem to "get it" that they could do something about changing architecture that's inaccessible, it's even more of a stretch for them to get it with changing their words. How about the use of "lame"? I never hear people talk about that one. It's a negative word (meaning inferior, weak,contemptible) and it also describes someone with a mobility problem! Hmm. Not much different than using the "r" word, is it?

Even people with disabilities freely use the "l" word without thinking about it.

Jean Ryan, Vice President for Public Affairs of Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York

We all need to stop and think

Hate crimes against disabled people, which Ian Birrell highlights, are, unfortunately, a brutal reality for many people. RNID research has found that one in seven of our deaf and hard of hearing members feel they have been the victims of a physical or verbal assault because of their deafness.

The tragedy is that physical and verbal assaults are so much part of everyday life for deaf and disabled people that they don't seem exceptional, let alone worthy of report. In some cases, such as a deaf person subjected to a verbal insult, the victim may not even be aware of the crime.

There also needs to be greater understanding of these crimes, not only amongst the general public, but also with the police service and disabled people themselves. RNID is working alongside the Crown Prosecution Service and the Police Service to ensure that disabled people's right to live without fear of prejudice are fully protected.

It's not just a policy issue, however, but one we can all help to address if we just stop and think before we use words that not only cause harm and offence but also serve to reinforce the prejudices that can lead to hate crimes against disabled people.

Brian Lamb, Executive Director of Advocacy and Policy, RNID

A subtle form of prejudice

Ian Birrell voices the experience of many of us who see our learning-disabled sons and daughters verbally abused by the continuing or returning use by 1970s educational psychologists' term "retarded", as today's insult. The word should have gone the way of older imposed labels like "moron" and "imbecile".

What I find difficult to bear, however, is the number of parents of children with learning disabilities who use the criterion of "intelligence", or not being retarded, to defend the extreme behaviour of their own sons or daughters. "He is very autistic," they will say, "but very intelligent." "She has ADHD and is always being arrested – but she is very intelligent." So that's all right then.

My learning-disabled daughter is probably unintelligent on a test score, and was certainly labelled "retarded" in the days of her youth. She has an outgoing, cheerful and friendly personality, enormous empathy for people feeling unwell or unhappy, and lots of practical common sense. She holds down a part-time job in a supermarket as a customer services assistant and works at it to the top of her ability.

She will never clamour for promotion or get stroppy, so makes an ideal employee. But she is unintelligent. Retarded, some would say.

So perhaps the parents of other disabled children could set an example themselves, by refusing to excuse the difficulties of their own disabled children, on the grounds that whatever else they might be, they are not "retarded".

Mary Harris, London W11

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own