Karpal SinghTHERE was one awkward moment when I interviewed DAP national chairman Karpal Singh on 20 Jan 2010. He had not printed out the list of questions I had sent in advance, and wanted to see my list on a paper in front of me. He asked me to slide the paper across the table to him because he has limited use of his arms, and apologised for that.
“Sorry, I’ve got this problem,” he said. “Not at all, YB,” I responded. But in my mind, my jaw dropped. Why should he apologise for his disability? For something that wasn’t under his control?
It was a fleeting glimpse into what a once able person feels like around still able people. Karpal himself said he didn’t realise the sufferings of disabled people until he became one. And now, the veteran politician who has been incarcerated before under the Internal Security Act considers immobility worse than detention behind bars.
It was also an eye-opener about how some people with disabilities may view themselves. But if they think of themselves as “problems” or inconveniences, it is society’s fault and not theirs. The words we use and the way we address or talk about disabled people have a part in reinforcing misconceptions.
Kamus Besar Bahasa Melayu Utusan does not qualify
‘keling’ as derogatory
Using disabled-friendly terminology has yet to take root in Malaysia, much less political correctness about other things. We’re the country whose guardians of the national language decided to include “keling” in the dictionary. We have parliamentarians who can’t restrain themselves from using sexual innuendoes and references to women’s monthly cycles during debates. Karpal‘s disability was the subject of derision by parliamentary colleagues and used in a retort by a fellow lawyer during the Teoh Beng Hock inquest.
Is it about being politically correct? Or is it really more basic — being thoughtful human beings? Truth be told, it’s likely that all of us have used racial, sexual, homophobic, gendered, or disabled slurs in conversation or in writing. We don’t think twice before saying “That retard cop asked me for a bribe”, or “That’s a lame argument”, or “She’s the black sheep of the family”.
To neutral language advocates, the slurs in those phrases are against disabled people (“retard” and “lame”) and persons of darker skin (“black”) — and not the cop, nor the argument being debated, nor the family member.
You might be shaking your head and rolling your eyes as you read this. What’s the point, you ask. Does anyone really care, or even mind? After all, the phrases are not targeted at disabled people or dark-skinned people. If we were to nit-pick over every adjective, we might end up not saying anything.
I myself am being re-educated about using this. Those were once my exact sentiments. Even now, I’ll admit it’s a disruption to the flow of thought to have to pause and think about being neutral when writing or speaking. Like now. Notice how I’ve been writing “disabled people” instead of “the disabled” or “invalid”?
Should we be politically correct if so few
people care? (source: public domain
| Wiki Commons)
To say “the disabled” is to lump all disabled people together and assume that they cannot be identified by any other trait. To say “invalid” is to imply that they are not valid human beings. Even to say “people with disabilities” is sometimes not preferred because it equates the person with his or her disability, rather than the person becoming disabled or acquiring the disability.
The difference lies in recognising that what’s normal and taken for granted in society are the very things that make others disabled. In other words, it’s society that disables a person by not meeting their needs, such as with the lack of disabled-friendly infrastructure or access.
You may ask, where does this end? Do we now stop saying “You’re crazy to do that”, or “He is blinded by ignorance” so as not to insult the mentally ill or people with visual impairments?
I don’t think it ever ends, because language evolves and so do its users. Even The Nut Graph, which has a strict policy against using disparaging and discriminatory language in its articles, had to be taught a lesson about using the word “lame”. It was used in this context — “This argument is lame because…” — in an article, and was spotted by a reader who commented that it was a derogatory adjective and insensitive to disabled people.
When words have multiple meanings according to the context they’re used in, who then, has the authority to dictate how they should be used? To what extent do we need to employ language sensitivity just to avoid insulting everyone? The discussion thread on this blog posting about not using the word “lame” shows how unwieldy the debate can become.
Reinforcing equality and respect
Why use terminology that certain groups find offensive?
The argument for neutral language ultimately boils down to respecting another’s feelings. Simply put, if a group of people find a particular word used in a particular way to be demeaning of their persons, then why use it?
While I appreciate that argument, I’m personally not for analysing every noun or adjective to see if it’s offensive to someone. It depends on the context. I would disagree when someone says non-Malay Malaysian races are “pendatang”, but I wouldn’t have a problem saying “That politician is blinded by greed”. Because I’m talking about the politician and not any blind person.
What I would strive for is language that affirms all individuals as equals. Hence, re-phrasing of certain terms is useful to learn if it helps a particular group of people to be seen as and treated as equals with the rest of society. If disabled people are to get their due respect from the rest of society, it can only begin with a changing of mindsets and attitudes. And how we think and feel are reflected in the words we use.
Deborah Loh hopes she can remember the new disabled-inclusive terms she’s learnt.
Read previous Sideways columns