Changing How Singaporeans Talk About Disability, One Word At A Time

Wheelchair-bound, deaf-mute, retarded — these are words that one non-profit organisation has been fighting to remove from the public lexicon for the last few years as they perpetuate negative connotations of persons with disabilities.

Terms like “suffers from” and “afflicted with” are similarly targeted by the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) as they imply the person is inherently in need of support and help

To change public discourse on disability so that it becomes more inclusive, the DPA writes in to media outlets, submits letters to newspapers, and appeals to government bodies when it sees offensive words used.

“People may think we’re being overly sensitive or pedantic, or political correctness gone mad … But we’re just hoping for it to be a conversation, a dialogue,” said Dr Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills (picture), DPA’s executive director.

In 2013, the association started a blog compiling views and commentaries from those in the disability community that touched on various issues, such as education, employment and legislation.

A key segment — called What It Should Have Been — consists of a compilation of inappropriate words or terms used to describe people with disabilities that have appeared in local media, blogs or publications.

Dr Medjeral-Mills said the language used “reflects the attitude behind the choice of words”, and can be much more powerful than people think.

“People with disabilities rarely have the opportunity to create the terminology or the language that’s used to speak about them … It’s about giving people a say, which hasn’t been the case until quite recently,” she said.

Freelance software developer Chua De Bao, 33, who is deaf, told TODAY over email that contrary to how people rudely assume that he is “mute” or “deaf-mute”, he is just “unable to speak in a clear tone”. He can also hear loud noises such as racing cars, planes flying overhead, thunder and loud music in a club.

Similarly, deaf student Vanessa Neo, 23, recounted how offended she felt when nurses and doctors wrote “deaf and mute” in very big letters on the white board during her hospital visits.

“It’s not that we can’t talk, we just don’t know how to pronounce the words or we don’t know whether the words we speak are correct, so we’d rather write down on paper or type (via) a phone,” she said.

While Dr Medjeral-Mills acknowledged there has been some change in recent years, and the public is slowly opening up to conversations about disability, she is now concerned that if society has swung too far to the other extreme in finding different euphemisms.

“Now we’re saying differently (abled), unique abilities, with abilities … But rather than moving the marker all the time, why don’t we remove the stigma of the word disability and keep the conversation growing there?” she said. Just ask the person with disability how he would prefer to be called.

Some people with a disability, such as 35-year-old graphic designer James Cai, are not too bothered over the terms used.

Mr Cai said, some of his friends get upset on his behalf when words such as “handicap”, “wheelchair-bound”, “people with special needs” come up.

“I guess I’m just comfortable being myself and that’s why I don’t really bother,” he said.

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