Inclusion Now 45

Disability History Month

The language of disability

Richard Reiser

Schools and colleges should now be planning what they will do in this year’s Disability History Month (22nd November – 22nd December). 34% of disabled Year 9 students (compared to 26% of non-disabled students) experience bullying through name calling according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Government. Schools have statutory duties to eliminate bullying, and examining the roots of disablist and pejorative language is essential in creating a climate of disability equality in your school or college. We have worked with the Anti Bullying Alliance on a whole range of resources to enable teachers to challenge language-based disablist bullying.

Historically disablist language is common. In Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, Scene I, Act I, Richard’s first speech draws links between evil and disability.

“…Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;”

Shakespeare drew on Sir Thomas Moore’s much earlier account of the Life and Death of Richard III which was written to curry favour with Henry VIII, whose father, Henry VII, had claimed the crown having killed Richard III in battle. Moore therefore embellished history, adding to both Richard’s disability and his evil deeds.

Throughout history, physical and mental differences have been described in language reflecting the thinking of the day, reinforcing powerful stereotypes which still influence ideas about disabled people. Lame today is used by young people to mean something that is good, a reversal of the meaning not smart or impressive. In Shakespeare’s time it meant both having an injured foot/leg, make walking difficult and not strong, good or effective. Overall the word is negative and not a good experience. Halt was a word in common use then, meaning the same as lame, as was cripple also meaning to move slowly, to be permanently injured or have no power. The polarity of good and evil/ beautiful and unsightly in language is found across all languages and is a major contributor to the devaluation of disabled people. Generally, disabled people of that period would have had families, worked and not been distinguished from the mass of people, unless severely impaired. Those not looked after by their community would have begged, though this became outlawed. So the impact of the play “Richard III” would have been dramatically strong. At a time when people generally believed in witchcraft and tangible forces of evil, it made a powerful link between disability and evil.

As part of this year’s UKDHM we have worked with the Open University and Access All Areas to produce a pack for schools around No Longer Shut Up, a film on the life of Mabel Cooper. Mabel was placed in a hospital for the ‘mentally deficient’ at the age of 4 and stayed there more than 30 years. When eventually released under care in the community, she became a major advocate for people with learning difficulties and a founder of People First. The pack has activities for students from KS2-5 in English, drama, history, science, geography and PHSE. Agitation by eugenicists led to the 1913 Act which licensed inhumane incarceration of “idiots”, “imbeciles”, “feeble-minded persons” and “moral imbeciles”, often for life. Some of these words, though unacceptable, are still in common use as harassing language, but most young people know nothing of this particularly nasty period of oppression. This year’s UKDHM gives us an excellent chance to challenge such ignorance and rejoin the struggle for disability equality. The pack will be launched in Parliament at 11am, 22nd November. UKDHM will launch that evening at 6pm at Kings Place, Kings Cross.