When we forget the language we used to speak.

Written by Stacie Withers on Wednesday the 18th of April 2012


This week, the Daily Mail featured a comment piece by author, Christopher Stevens, whose son is Autistic. He was offering his opinion on Ricky Gervais' latest effort, Derek. Not that he thought it was much of an effort. 'Vile, cynical and dishonest', says Stevens, as he chastises Gervais for his decision to mock the disabled. Now, I admit up front, I didn't see Derek. I have never enjoyed anything I have seen Gervais in and, exercising my right to choose, I decided to give it a miss.

So, I am not claiming to have any idea if Stevens is right about the programme, it may have been excellent or it may have been television bile, I can't say. No, what caught my attention was the tone of Stevens assertions about the struggles disabled people, in particular those with social communication difficulties such as Autism, face and the hurt that they and their families sustain as a result of stereotypes and mocking, which he sees as being comedians like Gervais' stock in trade. He made it clear that he felt, due to the difficulties that go with these sorts of conditions, that they should be off limits to entertainment programmes, that they should be excluded out of respect.

A lot of what Stevens talked about was familiar to me, my 3 year old son is Autistic and the description of a young boy struggling to make sense of a world he does not understand is something I witness every day. However, Stevens objection that the programme was mocking the disabled, patronising people who could not be in on the joke, no matter how much they wanted to be part of the fun, manages to patronise, and marginalise in its own way. Now, I am sure that Stevens wants nothing more than for his son to be treated fairly and equally, but that cannot happen if he is categorised by his disability before any other aspect of his existence.
My son is Autistic, yes, but I have never introduced him to anyone by saying 'This is my son, he's autistic.', like it was the most important part of him, something I needed to warn them about, in case they were going to say anything that might cause offence or embarrassment. People discover Leo's condition gradually, as it becomes relevant to mention, in the same way I may mention he gets eczema, or that he loves Disney Cars. I have never seen Leo as a disability, so I am not in the least offended by generalisations about disability, as it never occurs to me that they are aimed at Leo, personally. By flagging his condition at the outset, I would only be serving to censor people around us.

Before I had Leo, I used to use many of the more choice slang names for people with mental disabilities, 'Mong, Window Licker, Specials, 'Tard & Spaz' were not uncommon in my vocabulary. I do not use those words now, since I spend a lot of time around other parents of children with disabilities and am aware I could cause offence. I modify my language, in the same way I would never say 'Fuck' in front of my grandmother. But I have not moved so far from my previous life, a life before Leo, a life before Autism, to judge those who do use these words. I never meant any offence to people with learning difficulties when I used those words, I used them in the context I did, to have the meaning I intended at the time. I do understand that this distinction is not a popular one (Stevens calls this 'a devious, self-serving and cowardly defence' when Gervais attempts to use this argument), language is a powerful thing and people seem to guard their right to be offended, or rather to be protected from things that offend them, far more than they value the freedom of speech and to use language freely.

But Mr. Stevens is offended. As I suppose he has a right to be, although he does, I fear, miss the point. When people modify their language, suppress their initial reactions to people with disabilities, it eliminates the possibility of education, to gain a deeper understanding. When Leo began to attend nursery, he did not join in. He circled the edge of the room, warily watching the other children, wanting to join in but having no idea how. The staff looking after him, although wonderfully supportive, felt strongly that Leo should be accommodated, his Autism leading him to be treated differently; sympathetically, but different all the same. This continued until he moved classes, and had new staff who took a far more inclusive and less 'tolerant' approach. They explained to the other children what his condition meant, why he behaved as he did. The children asked some rather blunt questions, as only 3 and 4 year olds can, and I struggled to find adequate explanations but they were very interested in the answers and even joined in enthusiastically learning some of the Makaton sign language Leo uses to communicate. Low and behold, they started making an effort to include Leo, talking to him, ignoring the fact he didn't talk back and chattering away to him quite happily. My little boy, who could not find anyone to play with, now has a best friend and is often at the centre of the action at break time. He still has all the issues he had before, and will withdraw if situations move out of his comfort zone, but he is steadily improving all the time and will join mainstream school with his friends in September. And all because it was ok to talk freely about the fact he was different.

I don't mean to say that calling people with learning difficulties 'Mongs' is the way forward for education and acceptance, but by prohibiting language, by judging people's reactions to those with disabilities, and by declaring disability off limits unless dealt with in a sanitised and politically correct manner, we invite segregation, we create a society where all the things people think about individuals with special education needs are thought secretly, going unchallenged. Laughing at things that are inappropriate can be good; television that makes us uncomfortable can be good. It makes us ask why we feel that way. It gives us a chance to ask questions we may otherwise have felt unable to ask. And, as the parent of a child with learning difficulties, I would rather be part of an inappropriate joke, than the subject of pity. I don't need you to feel sorry for me, or for Leo. But, if you'd like to ask questions or share a laugh with us, that'd be just fine.
Tags for this post: autism, freedom of speech, stigma, language.
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