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Ann Bradley

Mind your language

You may well have missed an intriguing debate about definitions in Mind's in-house journal, Mencap News. At issue is the question of what you should call people who used to be described as 'having a mental handicap'. This term is apparently no longer acceptable as it has negative connotations, and the revisionists want Mencap News to change its name in line with the new thinking. This is easier said than done, since nobody seems able to agree on what would be an acceptable new label.

The term 'people with learning disabilities' now replaces 'mentally handicapped' in most official literature, including that of the Department of Health and the Health Education Authority. It's favoured by the radicals because it emphasises that there's a real person with real needs, not just a handicap. But the really radical people don't like the word 'disability', because it is 'value-loaded' and has negative connotations. Really radical people go for the term 'people with learning difficulties', which they see as altogether more positive as it implies that the problem can be overcome.

The Mind old guard have pointed out that 'people with learning difficulties' trivialises the problems faced by the mentally handicapped, because it implies that they are no different from kids who can't spell. Despite this objection, the really, really radical people have gone one step further along the road to obscurity by arguing for the term 'intellectually challenged'. This, they believe, has the virtue of 'not being negative at all'.

And they're right. The problem is that 'intellectually challenged' doesn't accurately or effectively describe the negative problems faced by someone with a mental handicap. I feel 'intellectually challenged' by Living Marxism - if it wasn't intellectually challenging I wouldn't read it. But that intellectual challenge has nothing in common with the problems of those whose mental handicap makes them incapable of understanding the magazine.

The whole point of this bizarre debate is to find some way of describing a problem without stigmatising it. It seems a rather pointless task. There is nothing inherent in a word like 'handicap' that gives it abusive connotations. Public attitudes to terms, words and phrases simply reflect the way that society views what they describe.

Most people view mental handicap as a condition they don't want to have, or to know much about. The condition is already stigmatised, and no amount of verbal wrangling will change that. The discussion around terms can only be a distraction from calling for the necessary facilities for those who suffer from (or care for someone who suffers from) the condition in question. But then, battles over terms are less bloody than battles for resources.

If these sorts of discussions were confined to matters such as the name of the Mind journal it wouldn't be much of a problem. But definitional anguish is already a strong current in politics. At one excruciatingly tedious conference that I recently attended, the participants erupted into life at only two moments.

The first occasion was when a hapless woman referred to the 'underdeveloped world' instead of calling it 'the South'. 'Underdevelopment' is out of vogue because it apparently under-values 'the specific form of development pursued by indigenous populations of Southern countries'. This is at best ridiculous and at worst reactionary. The inferior living standards in the underdeveloped world will not improve because London conference-goers pretend to value them more highly. I say 'pretend' because, in all honesty, nobody can really think that the quality of life of a starving Ethiopian peasant is equal to that of a middle class Brixtonian.

The second frisson of rage was provoked when I referred to the need to campaign for women's right to abortion. The others weren't against abortion, but (as I was sharply informed) 'we don't talk about the right to abortion any more - we campaign for choice'. Choice is felt to be a better word because it avoids alienating the anti-abortion lobby, and supposedly better reflects the aims of 'our' side in so far as we all recognise the undesirability of abortion in an ideal world.

I resent this sort of verbal posturing. While it can be an expression of naivety and foolishness, it's usually a cynical attempt to avoid tackling a real social problem - such as what the West has done to what used to be called the third world. The concept of underdevelopment assumes that these economically backward countries have been prevented from developing. Consequently it begs the question as to who is responsible for holding them back. The concept of 'the South', on the other hand, implies nothing more than a geographical location. We can pretend that we're all the same, just living a little differently in different places.

Likewise the rejection of the phrase 'right to abortion' in favour of 'right to choice' sidesteps the issue. Who could argue against 'choice'? It is such an inoffensive expression. But it is inoffensive because it's ambiguous. If we mean we think that women should be able to have abortion - let's say it. If people disagree, let's have the argument out and put our case convincingly.

I think there is a strong case for straight talking - for going against the current fashions, telling it like it is, and facing up to objections. It may seem a bit crude and unsophisticated to those who like to play with words, but that's their problem. At least people will understand what we're talking about.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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