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
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
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
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992