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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