What are they on about?

10th November 2000 at 00:00
David Newnham drops euphemisms

A colleague was talking to somebody from Mencap the other week and referred to a child as mentally handicapped.

It seemed safe to use the term, given that "Mencap" is a contraction of "mental" and "handicap". But evidently not. "We don't like to refer to people in that way," said the Mencap person. "We prefer to describe them as having a learning disability."

Now I'm all for sensitivity in these matters, but as the father of a teenager who suffered brain damage at birth, I know the danger of mincing words.

"Your son," said the professionals when Luke's disabilities began to manifest themselves, "has learning difficulties." And, for a while, I assumed this meant he'd have trouble memorising irregular French verbs but that he'd get there in the end.

Then I came across a remark in a newspaper that "mentally handicapped people now style themselves as having learning difficulties", and the penny dropped.

The professionals meant well, I'm sure. After all, the term "mental handicap" carres a whole lot of unhelpful baggage. But at least I had a fair idea what it meant. And just when I needed to be told exactly what the score was, they decided to play word games.

It's hardly as though "difficulty" or "disability" more accurately describe the situation than "handicap". How can they when, in a literal sense, these terms are more or less interchangeable?

Give someone a label and someone else will give them a hard time. The word "spastic" was taken from the Greek word meaning "to pull" because people with cerebral palsy are pulled this way and that by the tightness of their muscles.

But "spastic" became a term of abuse. So the Spastics Society changed its name to Scope, and "spastic" followed "mongolism" into the linguistic wilderness.

Maybe there are those at Mencap who consider a change of name overdue. But what's the point? The fact that children now call each other "Scopies" surely suggests it's time to stop running.

So let's stop tinkering with the labels and face up to the name-callers.

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