Amid the Labor leadership saga, two important events happened in Canberra last week: the passing of legislation supporting the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the apology to those who suffered under historic forced adoption practices. Both were important because they acknowledged groups of people who have been marginalised, but also because they illustrated the importance of language when talking to, and about, marginalised groups.
The government announced the NDIS would now be known as “DisabilityCare”. The intention appears to be to align it in the public mind with Medicare, but such branding — while it may seem benign — is loaded for disability advocates. As Ramp Up editor Stella Young notes, disabled people are trying desperately to move away from care-based ideas of disability, which is tied up in notions that disabled people can’t look after themselves:
“Despite several attempts, I’ve been unable to find an individual or organisation who was a part of seemingly low-key government consultation, and who likes the name. Indeed, the name was heavily criticised on a forum discussing the NDIS. This forum was later removed, but the comments still exist in Google’s cache.
“We are no strangers to terrible names for things in the disability sector. Two years in a row the campaign for the NDIS, Every Australian Counts, has run so-called awareness-raising DisabiliTEA events. Yes, you read that correctly. Disability, but with cups of TEA. Get it? It’s all terribly cute while doing approximately nothing to address the paternalistic attitudes we fight so hard against.
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“We’ve tolerated this condescending language in the disability sector for a long time now, so perhaps we’re all partly to blame for DisabilityCare. We haven’t been talking about rights enough.”
The NDIS is about providing enough funding for disability services to give disabled people autonomy where feasible. Regardless of how forward-thinking the NDIS is, using such a loaded term in the re-branding was always likely to offend many disabled people.
Then the apology. While Julia Gillard’s speech was generally well received by those who attended, Tony Abbott’s words of condolence didn’t go down so well. His speech used terms like “relinquish” (which implies some amount of choice in the matter) and “birth parents” (which implies their role in their children’s lives is but a biological process). Much like the word “care” in a disability services context, these words are weighted with negative and hurtful attitudes for the parents and children who were forced apart, often by coercion.
Abbott’s use of these words was out of ignorance, not malice, and he immediately retracted them.
Given the Senate report on forced adoptions discussed the fact the language of adoption, then and now, harmed those who suffered under the practice, and reading just how horrific it was for many of the young women, it highlights the need to know how to talk to, and about, marginalised groups, especially from a position of relative power.
People with disabilities, and those who suffered under the practice of forced adoptions, are two very different groups of people. But both have been marginalised by society, both in action and in the language used to talk about them. Any hurt may not have been intentionally offensive, but when a group of people have suffered so much the least we can do is give them the right to choose the way we talk about these topics.
*Lauren Gawne is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s School of Languages and Linguistics and blogs at Superlinguo