Why is Derogatory Language Towards the Mentally Ill and Disabled Still Accepted?
In the media we are constantly hearing about instances of misuse of language that offends. Whether this is racist insults or homophobic slanders, misuse of words such as rape, sexist jibes etc; any celebrity or politician or public persona that slips is plastered all over the front page and decimated by the twitter-sphere whether their use of this language was purposeful or not.
I abhor cruel, offensive language. Language is powerful and we should be aware of how we use it. The point I am raising is why we do not place the same value on slang used to describe those with mental disorders, learning difficulties or those who are mentally ill.
In the last six months, I have often heard each of the below used at least once informally and unashamedly to describe situations:
- She is such a schizo, she was fine one minute ago
(someone who changes mood quickly)
- Stop having an epi, we'll sort it
(To someone who is getting very wound up) - Epilepsy is not even a mental illness or learning difficulty, it's a neurological disorder but it is used in a similar vein
- God, I'm such a retard / so autistic
(after making a stupid mistake / being a bit oddly numerate)
- You're such a spaz
(to someone who has tripped clumsily)
- I'm going mental, seriously
(a lot and I've been guilty of this one as casual adjective)
- You look fucking rexy, amazing
(to someone who has lost weight)
- Are you being a bit "special"
(to someone who is struggling to complete a task)
- Can you wipe the surface after, sorry I'm so OCD
(after cooking or using a kitchen)
I could go on. The thing Is people don't react to these things like they would if I said "You look so gay", or "Stop being such a big girl" (said to a man) or any other offensive comment.
Why is this? Having grown up with a sister with significant learning difficulties, I have spent my life wincing every time people casually say retarded. I usually don't react angrily to it because I don't believe that it helps -(unless someone is saying something offensive about people with learning difficulties)- if it's used casually, I tend to ignore it. At the very most, I'll ask them softly not to use that language. I understand that it has become a colloquialism, however I think now is the time to change that.
People who are mentally ill or mentally disabled (very different things too obviously, I'm aware), who have the conditions that the words are referring to are not being stupid or overreacting or behaving in an unnecessary way like the slang insinuates. It is not a choice, nor does it make them any less than anyone else. I know that the world still struggles to understand mental health, learning difficulties and those that are not "normal" but I believe we really we need to lead by example and change this way of speaking as we have done for racist, sexist or homophobic vocabulary. It is important.
This is not about being politically correct, rather being humans. Because to understand and to learn and to empathise, we need to adjust our expression and remember that like everybody, people with these conditions are sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, friends, colleagues and they have sisters, fathers, brothers, fathers, mothers, friends and colleagues. In fact most people know someone who has a mental illness or know someone who has been born with a mental disability.
I'm starting a movement, not of blame and finger pointing but of re-education. Think, Speak, Mind.
When I talk about my sister, I generally say she has Special Needs because she does, but she's also just special and I mean that in the wonderful sense of the word, of being an amazing, incredible individual who just happens not to have the same abilities as others. Seeing and hearing that word used derogatorily is like a burn every time.
I've also known people who've suffered with mental illness and again the casual use of language does not help and in some cases can cause shame in talking to anyone about it.
Help others understand.
This piece first appeared in 2014 on my old blog and is still just as relevant.
*I've most probably slipped up in my reference to something even in this short post..