Friday, 21 October 2011

Language and how we each use it

All the media attention surrounding Ricky Gervais got me thinking last night, particularly about my own use of language and how that has changed over the years.

When I was a child, my cousins whom I spent lots of time with, lived near to the local 'mental hospital' as it was called back then.  It was the typical building of it's type, large. cold and imposing behind high walls and as a small child I remember being scared of going past as our understanding at that time was that it housed 'mad people', which to our young minds and limited knowledge meant people the likes of Myra Hindley who would surely murder us if they could get to us.  Occasionally one of the residents would escape from the confines of the grounds somehow and the reporting in the local press only added to our misunderstanding as they talked of 'escaped inmates' being 'potentially dangerous'.

By the time I reached my early teens, I had come to a better understanding and believed that the occupants were people who have mental health issues and presented as much of a  danger to themselves as others if allowed to wander about in our community.  Then I had an experience that provided me with a greater insight when my dad had some kind of 'turn' (I really can't be more specific than that as the doctors never could provide an explanation) and suddenly seemed to forget about the past 20 odd years of his life.  He was initially admitted to the psychiatric ward at our local hospital and then transferred to a London hospital for further testing, during which he suddenly came out of whatever was happening and after several weeks of complete memory loss, was completely back to his old self at the complete bafflement of the medics.  

This was my enlightenment to the fact that mental health issues can affect anyone and that referring to 'nutters and lunatics' was not something that was acceptable - those words along with others such as 'loonybin' were removed from my vocabulary as I became more aware of the potential impact that such words might have on those around me who might have links with individuals to whom these words would commonly be applied.  I guess the experience with my dad (actually my step-dad but the only father I had ever known) and also the fact that my mum had suffered so much, even from her own family due to my illegitimacy, made me very conscious of how easy it is to cause distress to others, even unintentionally.

"I was a student nurse at Leavesden Hospital in the early 1970s. The wards were 
big, tall, bleak buildings three floors high. They were cold inside with tiled walls."  
Some years later life added another lesson for me.  We had been through the grief of learning his diagnosis and that he had major heart and bowel issues, come through that and accepted him as our son only to then have to endure the further grief of his loss when he was 100 days old.  It was a major life changing experience that pretty harshly pointed out the attitudes of some people whom we had previously thought of as friends and it made me once again reconsider how my words and actions might impact on those around me.  I knew that whilst I would doubtless make mistakes and say things that would upset and offend others, I would make a sincere effort to be aware of my use of language and to actively encourage others to do the same by politely pointing out when words and phrases were used that could be upsetting in certain contexts. (not to necessarily stop people using them, but to make them aware of situations where they might want to choose an alternative).

It was in relation to our son that some years after his death, Leavesden Hospital was to enter my thoughts again.  My aunt had actually worked nights there as a nurse when I was young and at a family gathering we got to talking about Daniel and Down's Syndrome at which point she said to me "of course I nursed lots of people with Down's at Leavesden".  I was stunned, not because I was unaware of the fact that people with learning disabilities had been institutionalised, but I have never made that connection in my head with a group of people that I had now come to understand and feel a strong connection with and that terrible, imposing, prison like building of my past.  She told me some heartrending stories of how the staff were not allowed to interact with them, how many had been there since they were small children and never had visitors - it was very distressing to hear, but even more so to think that it had been happening so close to me and in my lifetime.

When you read these things, they often feel quite distant and remote,  
but this took place just 30 odd years ago and involved a much loved aunt 
- I was deeply shocked at that realisation. The hospital finally closed in 1995.

So, getting back to language and it's use, I appreciate that it would be a mammoth task for everyone to be fully aware of the potential issues surrounding the use of every word, particularly in an area that they have no personal experience of, but I do think that if it is pointed out to you that your usage of a particaulr word or phrase is causing distress to others, you have a clear choice to either stop using the word or to totally ignore the feelings of other people.  Perhaps if only one person is upset by the word, then you can argue that they are being over-sensitive and feel comfortable disregarding them, but when a good number of people express concerns, I personally think you have a moral duty to think about your actions.

I am just a small insignificant person in this world, but I feel obliged to consider and respect my fellow humans, regardless of any differences in race, colour, religion etc.  I don't have to agree with them, but I should afford them the same courtesies that I would expect from them and whilst I may not always get it right, I will strive to do my best and apologise for my failures when they happen.   In my humble opinion, people that are in the public eye have generally been placed there by the smaller more insignificant amongst us and as such I feel that those people also have a duty to consider and respect others, in fact probably more so.  Many well known individuals have used their success to actively support charitable efforts and champion the cause of others who are less fortunate, it's a shame that others seem intent on just the opposite.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Ricky Gervais and his use of the word "mong"

I have of course been involved in commenting and expressing concern about this well known comedian's use of this word which he says has a new meaning and has nothing to do with Down's Syndrome, but which is seen as highly offensive by many people who have a connection with the condition.

As well as those who have found it offensive there have been many others who have spoken out about freedom of speech and oversensitivity of certain groups - this morning I took part in a debate on Radio 5 Live Breakfast Your Call (on iPlayer for next 7days)

Well, I'm sorry, but I don't find it funny to laugh at the misfortune of others - even some of those "You've been framed" videos where people have agreed to showing their accidents make me say ouch and feel sorry for them. If I use a word or phrase that is distressing to someone without realising and they point it out to me, I will try really hard to never to do it again and if it slips out I feel terrible.

When possible I try tactfully to point out to people that we refer to people with DS as people first ie "a person with DS" not "a DS person" and I would listen and respond to anything similar someone explained to me about another condition. We can't be expected to know everything about the use of different words in other countries or different fields of interest, but that doesn't mean we can choose to ignore the affect they have on others when it is pointed out to us.

In 2009 I experienced something that many of you may never do and it got me thinking. I was for the vast majority of a 10 day visit to Nigeria, the only white person and as such was the object of quite a lot of interest from the public. No-one did or said anything hurtful or offensive to me and I never felt in any way threatened, but that did not stop me feeling that all eyes were on me and that I was being singled out for attention - I realised that it must be like that pretty much every day for someone with DS once they are old enough to be aware that they are different. It must be a pretty hard thing to live with all your life, even without direct taunting and with the love of family and friends around you.

Ours is a sad society when we feel it is acceptable to go around making fun out of people who are 'different' despite the fact that we are so called 'educated and enlightened' - surely we should be realising that everyone has feelings, everyone wants to be loved and to belong and EACH and EVERY one of us should be trying to promote that, whoever we are, but more so if we are in the public eye and can share that example with so many others through our work.

Someone like Ricky Gervais is in a position where he could do so much good if he chose to, in fact some people claim that he has already done a lot to highlight disability issues, in which case why does he not seem able to understand why these comments are so upsetting to our community and at least refrain from further use or apologise?  I certainly wish I had his money and opportunities to make a difference, but if he doesn't want to help, then he could at least stop hurting those we love!

Update October 22nd 
Well it appears that Ricky Gervais has finally realised how upsetting this has been for many people.  He still says he meant no harm and had not realised that anyone still linked the word with Down's Syndrome, but he has apologised directly to Nicky Clark who was one of those who spoke out about the distress to families.  She posted details on her blog Nicky Clark and last night the Daily Mail online posted an article about the apology.  Hopefully that is the last we hear of Mr Gervais using the word and perhaps he will react a little sooner in future if he unintentionally uses a word that causes upset and distress to a group of people.  Thank you Ricky for being a big enough man to say sorry.