Categorised | Columns

Disability, sensitivity, and equality


Karpal Singh
THERE 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.

Glib lips


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.

Understanding disability

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. favicon


Deborah Loh hopes she can remember the new disabled-inclusive terms she’s learnt.

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10 Responses to “Disability, sensitivity, and equality”

  1. Z00L says:

    The ‘black’ in black sheep does not refer to the Africans.

    A ‘black sheep’ is something that is quite rare/infrequent because once somebody mentioned ‘sheep’, the mental image that comes is the ‘usual, common, fluffy and cute sheep with white fleece’.

  2. MarinaM says:

    And may I make a pitch also for the use of more empowering language for other groups of people too, eg People Living with HIV, instead of AIDS ‘sufferers’ or ‘victims’, sex workers instead of prostitutes, drug users instead of drug addicts (or worse, zombies, etc). Also there is the minefield of the transgendered community. In Malaysia, their preferred term is Mak Nyah, not transvestite nor transexual.

    And let’s not forget domestic worker or helper instead of ‘maid’.

  3. ahoo says:

    Datuk Karpal Singh (a grandfather mah), you are an icon of real democracy. Sir, you are not disabled or invalid but just physically handicapped or bodily not too well. Your mind and will are still intact and sharp as ever.

    Many of us wish that you can regain your walk but we all know that you will walk your talk. Be ever cheerful as life is never as predictable as one wanted it to be. God bless you and may God continue to grant you peace that surpasses all understanding as and when you need it.

  4. U-Jean says:

    To add, rape survivors instead of rape victims.

    At least, TNG is willing to educate itself. I’ve written to the The Star about using People Living with HIV (PLHIV) or HIV-positive people but still i see HIV victims and AIDS sufferers.

    Sigh.

  5. YH Lee says:

    As the reader mentioned above, I’d like to thank The Nut Graph for addressing the issue in a very well-written and thought-provoking article. Policing our language is hard, but I believe it’s a task well-worth persevering at because our language reflects our thinking – and hopefully by making small but significant alterations to our language, we’ll also become more open-minded, accepting and sensitive (in the ‘sensitive towards others’ needs’ sense, not the ‘sensitive issues’ sense) in thought.

    I also wholeheartedly second MarinaM’s pitch for the use of more empowering language.

  6. Siew Eng says:

    The Star still sees nothing wrong in referring to state legislators as “assemblymen” regardless of their sex.

  7. Michael says:

    Hmm…I find the last paragraph interesting. Are our thoughts and feelings really manifested in the words we use? Coupled with the degradation in the quality of English in our country, do we really say what we mean and mean what we say?

    I think while language is an important part of the change in culture we want to make, we should not forget that the real enemy is the lack of compassion.

    How many times have we heard rape jokes because [people think] it’s funny? Do you really think it’s because they don’t know it’s degratory? I think these people know but they just don’t think it’s important.

    I think people know. They just don’t want to change.

    The real enemy is the lack of empathy.

    But this article is really a breath of fresh air. I am for greater tact in our use of words because words can hurt and leave a scar.

  8. Alina Rastam says:

    I feel the way you do abt use of words like ‘blinded’ in the context you mentioned, because anyone, not just the people who are literally blind, can be blinded in the sense of not seeing something and to use the word in this way is not, in my view, derogatory to blind people.

    It’s a matter of being sensitive to words and their nuances, I guess; and also of the degree to which we want to go in using respectful language. Some people would use ‘visually challenged’ rather than ‘blind’. And in many countries, people don’t use the term ‘disabled’ – they use ‘differently-abled’ or ‘physically challenged’. I must say I was a bit taken aback to see an article abt the rights of differently-abled people using the term ‘disabled’ which I am myself uncomfortable with as it suggests that people who do not have the full use of their physical bodies are impaired..but it’s hard to find a term that’s perfect. I wld choose ‘differently-abled’ but it still doesn’t sit that well with me. At any rate, I’m glad that you are talking abt this issue – it’s high time people started addressing the rights and issues of differently-abled people in our society – look at how our streets are so full of potholes, and a lot of our public transport system completely ignores the existence of people in wheelchairs etc. It’s appalling. So I’m glad you’re addressing the issue of language, which as you say is so important in forming our attitudes towards a particular group.

  9. Sean says:

    “not, in my view, derogatory to blind people”

    Words eh? A woman was upstairs in the shower when she heard a frantic knocking downstairs. “Who is it?” she called. “The blind man,” a voice replied. The knocking resumed. “Can you come back later?” she shouted. “It’s the BLIND MAN,” the voice replied. She looked for her towel, but had forgotten to get one from the bedroom before entering the shower. Knock-knock-knock! Ding-dong! “BLIND MAN!!” Desperate to deal with the interruption, she plucked ten ringgit from her bag, ran to the door, opened it and thrust the money into the blind man’s hand. “Nice assets, madam. Now where do you want these blinds?” he asked.

  10. Ida Bakar says:

    Some years ago I enrolled in a British Sign Language class run by ‘deaf’ teachers. There was a disagreement regarding terminology. One advocated the term ‘deaf’ to describe himself because it is his identity – he was born deaf, he lip reads, he signs and belongs to the deaf community with their distinctive culture. He did not consider the term derogatory. The other opted for the more PC ‘hard of hearing’.

    I supposed when one uses an otherwise respectable term pejoratively, that is when problems start. There is a Masjid Kapitan Keling in Penang which stood for the prominence of Kelings / Mamaks there, something that I as Penangite, am very proud of. In the hands of the bigots at Utusan the word keling was used negatively.

    On a personal level, I am trying to educate my relatives to use the words ‘a man living with dementia’ to describe my father’s condition. He is not ‘demented’ or worse, the horrible word ‘nyanyuk’.


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