What is Britain saying about disability? Part 1: the dominant story

The game changers

Scope summary of research by Linguistic Landscapes. linguistic logo

With our next campaign we want to work with others to begin shifting attitudes towards disabled people for the better. Recognising the power of language and its influence on how people think and act, we wanted to build a comprehensive picture of how people – both disabled and non-disabled – are talking around disability.

As well as our research into public attitudes towards disabled people, we worked with Linguistic Landscapes (who have previously partnered with organisations including Oxfam GB, Prostate Cancer UK, the NHS and various companies) on a ‘discourse analysis’ – basically an analysis of how people talk and write about disability. They analysed over 500 texts from 2010 to now across the media, companies providing disability services, disability charities (including Scope) and campaigners, the Government, blogs, social media and elsewhere on the internet.

In this first summary of their research, it shows there is a dominant way of talking about disability that’s entrenched in Britain today. The main narrative that’s out there – accidentally or intentionally – says that disabled people are seen as passive, homogenous not individuals, separate from ‘normal’ society, hopeless and voiceless.

Passive

      • Things happen to disabled people by others. Movement is a common metaphor and also disabled people being described as recipients: “changes to social security aren’t helping disabled people, they are pushing them into poverty” ; “how on earth they had justified throwing disabled children to the wolves”
      • Many tend to talk about rather than to disabled people:
        “they/them” not “you”
        “more than 100,000 disabled people are or risk soon being denied vital care and support”
        The voices of disabled people themselves are less evident in the mainstream than voices speaking about disabled people.
      • Where disabled people do themselves speak, there is often limited visibility of their impairment
        Disabled people’s voices appear mainly in writing, on the radio and only more recently on TV. This is partly why Paralympics was so radical by showing disabled people visibly and prominently.

‘Other’: separate or different from the mainstream 

      • Disabled people are often put with other marginalised groups
        “Sick and disabled”, “Old and disabled”, “The poor and disabled”, “Women, children and disabled people”, “BME, women and disabled (students)”.
      • This powerfully sustains an invisible norm that’s taken for granted, the ‘normal’ are the able-bodied, the unimpaired, men, straight people, white people, the non-poor etc.
      • Disabled people are overwhelmingly featured as the exception
        “Those with a disability are twice as likely to live below the poverty line – and more likely to be victims of crime”
        “Disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to experience material deprivation”
      • Common metaphors of war and survival reinforce the sense of difference
        “parents battling for support”, “barely surviving”, “war on welfare”

 Homogenous: a mass group 

      • Stripping away people’s individuality – when terms like “disabled people” are used a lot, the person is defined only by their disability and they can lose individual characteristics , even as to whether the disabled person is an adult or child. There is very little about important aspects of pleasure, like humour, relationships and sex.
      • Stories of individuals are powerful but unfortunately too often these are negative, e.g. individual ‘benefit scrounger’ stories. These have particular power when people have little understanding of the wider group of ‘disabled people’. 

Work and individual responsibility: a massive topic

      • Not working is immoral – A recent and now major context for many conversations related to disability is work, for example in politics and the media. It is a moral discourse where you are only valuable – and ‘normal’ – if you are in employment.
      • The ‘benefit scrounger’ narrative fits within this, where being passive (not working) combines with being separate (different from the majority of hardworking people), combines with individual stories.

Some of the other findings showed that disabled people are often described as special and vulnerable, in an inevitably negative situation and permanently disabled with little understanding of the nuance of people’s impairments.

What do you think? And what are the alternatives?

The end result of the language we all use isn’t necessarily intended – often it can just be unthinking.  Because there is such an established way of talking about disabled people, most people won’t question it most of the time. But seeing it laid out here sparks thinking: is this the picture we want to paint or a different one?

Please comment below or tweet with the hashtag #ScopeGameChangers.  

We have now published the second part of our findings – some of the alternatives to the dominant narrative and hope for change. Let us know what you think.

Help, harm or be heard? The power of language

The game changers

Joe BrewerJoe Brewer is Founder of Cognitive Policy Works and lead researcher at DarwinSF 

Have you ever wondered about the importance of language? Noticed the way that people think and talk about an issue is somehow “out of touch” with what is true and real? Aspired to see a shift in the way political and social issues are understood?

Then you are in good company.

I have specialized in the study of cognitive linguistics and its many applications in politics for nearly a decade. During this time I have observed that the words we use (or don’t use!) come to shape how we understand the world. If you want people to dislike the government, call for “tax cuts” that imply taxation to be an unfair burden on the public. And if you want people to care about the common good, talk about “civic duty” and the benefits of living in a supportive community.

One way to analyze the power of words is through discourse analysis. A discourse is all of the ways people think and talk about a particular topic. You can, as two examples, have a discourse on education or a discourse on climate change. There will be some people who are influential on a topic and whose opinions shape their followers. And there will be official media channels from trusted sources that define the “correct” names for topics. This is true for anything that is widely talked about.

The composition of a discourse can be helpful or harmful to different people. For example, when I assisted in a major research study on poverty and the development discourse (published as the Finding Frames report a few years ago), it became clear that organizations working to bring poverty to an end were unknowingly complicit in the rise of wealth inequality throughout the Global South. They were hurting those whom they aspired to help!

This happened because most development NGO’s think and talk about themselves using the language of “charity” and “aid” – both of which reinforce the notion that privileged, wealthy Westerners are the powerful actors and that the poor (often dark skinned and female) Southerners are passive victims of their impoverished plight. By framing the discourse in this manner, they were unwittingly contributing to the power structures that create poverty. I have since begun working with a new anti-poverty organization called The Rules that is applying these insights to transform the global discourse on development and poverty and remedy this situation.

A new study of the language around disability shows the same problematic use of language. “The disabled” are separated out into an exclusive category of society. The language about them reinforces notions of superiority among “normal” people and steals away the vocal power of disabled persons by always placing them in a passive role. The good people at Scope share some of the findings from this study and encourage healthy conversations about what can be done about it.

I offer up this brief post to suggest that discourse is a vitally important topic of study. The words we use have power to shape reality. And so we must incorporate the best research tools available for revealing the strategic implications of language use. To do so is to shine a beacon of light on our own inner worlds. Failure to do so is to wander around in the dark, unaware even when we make massive strategic blunders.

I hope this short commentary offers insight and empowerment to all who seek to alter social discourse and reframe the debate in a way that empowers the marginalized and restores social justice in society.

What is Britain saying about disability?