Monday, 21 May 2007


I have noticed a very interesting trend lately. In the world of medicine, where words like "proven" and "certainty" tend to be of particular importance, there is a trend to call a spade a spade. "Oncology" is now "cancer care". Paediatric wards are now children's wards. And psychiatry is mental health care, which is ironic considering that what we are caring for is mental ill-health.

In the community services, where "Social Role Valorisation" is considered to be not only a worthwhile theory but the preferred theory and is an integral part of the training packages, there is a move towards brain-rotting verbiage. A key, very public example of this is the patronising spelling "disAbility". There is a publication called "InAbility PosAbility" which only makes matters worse.

At my work we recently received a manifesto from an organisation which, with a stated aim of "improving communication" within the sector, decided to set out what communication was, and was not, allowed.

I give you fair warning that if I am ever injured badly enough to result in a disability, and retain the cognitive faculties to have a relatively unchanged personality, memory and intellect, I will punch you in the face if you use any of those "acceptable" terms within earshot of me. Or bite your kneecaps off, or something. Whatever will be necessary to prevent your mealy-mouthed platitudinous mumblings.

And, in a great, massive, ironic twist of fate, Disability Services Queensland, an organisation which can rightly be charged with not knowing what it's own right hand is doing while looking at it intently, put out a publication and poster called "A way with words: Guidelines for the portrayal of people with a disability." In it, there is a list of terms to avoid. Much of it is for clarity ("seizure" instead of "fit, attack, spell") or for a "love the sinner, hate the sin" type of separation of person from condition ("person with epilepsy" instead of "epileptic"), which I support by the way, but then there came this beautiful piece of clear-speak:

Avoid "physically challenged, intellectually challenged, vertically challenged, differently abled" because "These are ridiculous euphemisms for disability." Use, instead, "Person with a disability." When I read that I didn't know whether to laugh or cheer. (Incidentally, "differently abled" how? Having a third eye is differently abled. Having no eyes is disabled. You can't get around that.)

One of the very few things I like about science-fiction writer Larry Niven, a man of pedestrian lyrical talent and a disturbing anti-environmentalism, is that he once wrote a list of "rules for writers" in which he included the following (and I paraphrase, because I don't have it in front of me): "If you have nothing to say, use whatever language you want to. If you have something to say, let nothing, nothing, stand in the way of saying it." Amen.

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