Paul Henry, a New Zealand television presenter, is in hot water (again) for using innapropriate language on air. Specifically, he called Susan Boyle a "retard". People are upset about it. He claims there’s nothing wrong with using that word, and that there’s a concerted campaign against him by IHC (a non-governmental organization providing support and care for people with intellectual disabilities).
I had heard about the "incident" from @corinh and his most excellent posterous post. Frankly, I was not surprised Henry used such language. He’s never impressed me as being particularly disability aware (or caring for that matter). It was synchronicity as well, because just a week before I’d participated in a Twitter conversation about the use of the word "retarded" and some of my followers were (and remain) convinced it’s fine to use that word.
Well, it is NOT fine to use that word. The word retarded is one of those words that is quite negative and pejorative. A bit like "wheelchair bound". I really don’t believe in Political Correctness for its own sake. But I do believe in the power of language. And I also believe that some people use that language to oppress others. I won’t venture to guess if Mr. Henry intended to be oppressive, but he most certainly comes across as assured of his own superiority. Whether or not he intends to play the role of oppressor, his behaviour lands him that role.
Anyway, Mr. Henry asserts that it’s fine to use the word "retarded" and that he is the victim of a smear campaign! See the online version of the article on the Sunday Star Times.
I am not part of IHC and have no contact with them. I *am* outraged at Mr. Henry’s use of the word, and at his total lack of caring. I can understand that someone would make a mistake, erroneously using offensive language (although as a journalist he should have known better). But once the error has been pointed out, an apology is in order.
"People First Language" is not a particularly new concept. It’s been around for 25 or so years. It recognises that individuals with disabilities are – first and foremost – people.
"Language is power. Our words have the power to inspire, motivate, and uplift people. They also have the power to hurt, isolate and oppress individuals or entire segments of society. Often times, throughout our history, it has become necessary to change our language and the way in which we refer to individuals and groups to avoid further oppressing those members of society." – West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Center (WVDDC).
The WVDDC goes on to list many words that aren’t appropriate to use, including the word "retard".
Not only language is evolving, changing, but keeping on using old language just reinforces the barriers caused by that language.
Old and inaccurate descriptors, and the inappropriate use of these descriptors, perpetuate negative stereotypes and reinforce an incredibly powerful attitudinal barrier. And this invisible, but potent, attitudinal barrier is the greatest obstacle facing individuals who have disability. – Kids Together, Inc.
Answers4Families, a group working with families of people with disabilities, also has a page on disability appropriate language, although it was written back in the early 1990’s, and many things have changed since then. Just goes to show that language is indeed evolving! Kathie Snow on her site Disability Is Natural has more on language and communication.
The Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities also discusses People First Language. They say:
Every individual regardless of sex, age, race or ability deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. As part of the effort to end discrimination and segregation — in employment, education and our communities at large — it’s important to eliminate prejudicial language.
Like other minorities, the disability community has developed preferred terminology — People First Language. More than a fad or political correctness, People First Language is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating and reporting on disabilities.
Dignity and respect.
That is what strikes me as thoroughly lacking in the way Mr. Henry discussed Susan Boyle, and is addressing the complaints. He claims he was joking good-naturedly, but he came across as mocking and demeaning. It’s not funny if you’re the only one to laugh, Paul.
So you see, it isn’t just IHC that says it’s innapropriate language.
What saddens me most in the whole lot, however, is that Mr. Henry’s ratings are likely to go up. Instead of boycotting him and stopping to watch, more people are going to look at his show. And as long as the ratings are good, TVNZ is unlikely to take appropriate measures to reprimand him. No-win situation, this.