Political Correctness: Mencap vows to keep name despite row

Michael Durham
Sunday 19 July 1992 23:02

MENCAP, the charity which represents mentally disabled people, has refused to bow to political correctness. It will keep its name and continue to use the term 'mentally handicapped'.

Despite coming under intense pressure from some of its own supporters - who say it is insulting the people it represents - the charity will not adopt the phrase 'people with learning difficulties' when it is relaunched in October.

The charity says the expression is inaccurate and could cost it support because the public would not understand it. However, it has agreed to kill off 'Little Stephen' - the image of a sad-faced, doe- eyed small boy which has been Mencap's logo for 40 years. The familiar face will be replaced by more positive images.

The decision not to change Mencap's terminology is certain to be challenged by charity and social workers, for whom the phrase 'mentally handicapped' is already taboo. But Mencap says changing the language will not solve the problems people face, or alter the attitude of the public. The row over Mencap's name and campaigning style reached its peak this year in the charity's newspaper, Mencap News. Subscribers, many of them the parents of mentally handicapped children and adults, recently filled the letters column calling for, or opposing, change in almost equal numbers.

According to one school of thought, the phrase 'mentally handicapped' is insulting because of its implication that such people are unable to help themselves. A pressure group, People First, recently organised a petition calling on Mencap to stop using the term and find a new name.

'Politically correct' alternatives which have been suggested include 'people with learning difficulties' - favoured by People First - 'people with learning disabilities' or even 'intellectually challenged', which are said to be more positive.

But Steven Billington, Mencap's director of marketing and appeals, said the charity would not use 'learning difficulties' in its dealings with the public because it would be widely misunderstood. It will still use the words 'mentally handicapped' in posters and television appeals.

'A change in name is not going to make any difference to the problems people face. In fact, we believe it will only make them worse,' Mr Billington said. 'The general public - the people whose attitudes we need to change - do not recognise 'learning difficulty' as mental handicap.

'It is only a matter of time before even the most right-on expression becomes a term of abuse. It has been the same since people talked about village idiots, and 'learning difficulties' is no exception. Children are already calling each other LDs as an insult.'

Lord Rix, Mencap's chairman, the former comedy actor who was recently given a peerage, said: 'The expression 'learning difficulty' is a misnomer. It implies that mental handicap is all a matter of education. We don't think it is an adequate description of the problems people face.' His daughter, Shelley, was born mentally handicapped. 'My child is 40 and to describe her as having a learning difficulty is a travesty of the truth.' People First, which has more than 200 groups of 'people with learning difficulties' around the country, said it would now step up its campaign.

A spokesman said: 'Mencap is denying people's rights. The Marriage Guidance Council changed its name to Relate, so why can't Mencap?'

The pounds 150,000 relaunch this autumn is designed to promote a more positive image for the mentally handicapped, and give Mencap a higher profile as a campaigning body as well as a fund- raising charity which helps individual families.

Little Stephen will be replaced as Mencap's logo by a selection of tinted photographs of real people with various degrees of mental handicap. Most wear happy expressions, over the slogan: 'Mencap. Making the most of life.'

(Photograph omitted)

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