Comment: Names will never hurt me?

Mark Gale is disability charity Mencap's campaigns and policy officer
Mark Gale is disability charity Mencap's campaigns and policy officer

By Mark Gale

The outrage at recent tweets made by Ricky Gervais also highlights a serious issue of discrimination faced by disabled people and what can be tragic consequences of offensive language.

Much of the coverage of comments made by Ricky Gervais focus on the argument as to whether The Office and Extras star meant to use the term "mong" as a derogatory reference to people with Down's syndrome. The comedian claims he was using the term in a modern sense to mean 'dopey' or 'ignorant' and that he was never referring to anyone with Down's syndrome. But the word has only come to mean 'dopey' because of false assumptions people make about people with Down's syndrome in the first place. That is why it is especially disappointing to hear the word used by someone like Ricky Gervais who has often played up and challenged such stereotypes of disability through his comedy.

The arguments that have been raging about freedom of speech are way off the mark. Mencap has never condoned censorship but have consistently called for people to recognise the impact of what they say and the words they use. Launching its 'Stand by me' campaign to end disability hate crime, Mencap spoke to a young man called Neil who has been forced to move home because of the abuse he has received. Neil told us that "They only have to hear me speak and they call me spastic." Neil has been taunted on buses, taunted with these words in his own home and ultimately beaten up on his own doorstep. It was the violence that made him too scared to go home, but it was a chain of events set in motion by a few simple words.

Or take the tragic case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her daughter Francesca after suffering years of abuse. In the end there were many elements that contributed to her death, but it all started with the abusive language suffered by her family. These words reflect the wider attitudes and abuse that disabled people face on a daily basis. By endorsing words like "mong", "retard" or "spastic" those in the public eye contribute to normalising discriminatory attitudes.

We have no doubt Ricky Gervais intended no offence to disabled people when he made his tweets. His actions show a lack of judgement and carelessness, rather than any real malice. Unfortunately, by not being aware of the impact of his words, he has unwittingly endorsed negative assumptions about disabled people.

We know that this can have a profound effect on disabled people. Their lives can be torn apart because of constant abuse by people using these words. There can be consequences even more tragic than that. Mencap is simply asking those in the public eye to consider the impact of their words.

Mark Gale is disability charity Mencap's campaigns and policy officer

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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