How the misuse and misinterpretation of language in society can cultivate stigma

Over the past few weeks, a comedian has sparked outrage following his use of a word that is detrimental to those with Down’s Syndrome.

Terms that refer to disability or mental illness are commonly misused and misinterpreted in society. Whereas someone might argue that calling a socially awkward colleague at work “autistic” is meant as a joke, the misuse of such words can confuse conditions that are widely misunderstood and stigmatised. We are glad that society has moved on from a fear of mentioning clinical diagnoses at all, but if a word referring to a disability or mental health condition is applied to mean something unpleasant, or abusive, then it further promotes the stigma and discrimination that many people are unacceptably subjected to in their everyday lives.

But the problem doesn’t stop there; verbal abuse is also at the root of all disability and mental health related hate crime. Mencap reported that 90% of people with a learning disability have experienced harassment and bullying, with 32% saying that this bullying was taking place on a daily or weekly basis. Furthermore, Mind reported that 71% of those with mental health issues had been a victim of crime in the past two years, with 41% experiencing on-going bullying.

In the Daily Mirror last week, Ann Mathews, a mother to her 20 year old son who has Down’s Syndrome, pleaded to all public figures to “please think about what you’re saying. You might think it’s harmless, you may think it’s funny. But I promise you, for those on the receiving end of your jokes, it is anything but.”

With this in mind, the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities has teamed up with Lemos & Crane for a three-year project called Voice and Community. The project will identify and explore people with learning disabilities’ experiences of harassment and evaluate how organisations and practitioners who provide services in the community can best work to support victims of harassment and respond to and prevent incidents. We will develop practical resources to help practitioners support people who experience harassment, respond to incidents of abuse in collaboration with other agencies, and deliver community-based prevention strategies.

This idea of ‘community’ is fundamental to reducing incidents of hate crime, stigma and discrimination. Not only were disability groups and charities outraged at the comedian’s choice of language, but the public were too, and it is vital that we harness this society-wide support in our continuing work to stop the stigma, discrimination and hate crime that society’s most vulnerable people are subjected to every day as a result of their disability or mental illness.