As we seek to shift attitudes with our next campaign, we recognise how important language is. We recently released the first part of some research into discourse: what people are saying about disability in Britain today, including disabled and non-disabled people, online communities, the media, Government, charities, campaigners and others.
Below are some of the emerging alternative discourses – other ways of speaking and thinking that could be built on. These include individuals actively speaking out for themselves, people breaking down barriers respectfully, making disability more ‘normal’ through the power of popular culture – and more.
Angry, active dissent
Some disabled campaigning groups explicitly take on and challenge the language of the dominant discourse. By doing this they expand what it’s possible to say about disability, and also enable more moderate voices to occupy the middle ground. But they can also tend to reinforce difference from the rest of society, whether or not that’s intended.
- Overt rejection of ‘care’. Terms like “caring” and “help” do not feature on websites of these campaigning groups, whereas for mainstream charities they are in the top 50 words. Rights feature large instead.
- Anger is reframed as positive, fuelling action, for example “We have consistently united in anger and celebration”. Disabled people are described as vocal agents of change.
- The raw experience of being disabled is present. There are references to hate crime, harassment, hostility, and these are not sanitised.
Self-mocking, reframing the negative
- Some disabled groups or individuals reclaim or mock terms of abuse directed at them e.g. Benefit Scrounging Scum, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger etc. This is a powerful way of reducing the effect of the negative, but ultimately to replace the dominant discourse you need something else too.
Alternative ways of talking about disability
Other alternatives below don’t directly take on the dominant discourse, but they do provide other ways of speaking that could help to shift the way society talks and thinks.
- Voices in the first person – individuals telling their own stories, rather than talking about disabled people and as a group.
- Active aspirations and hopes – They have hopes not for a non-disabled normality but for ‘normal’ aspirational things. Trailblazers for young people: “be an undercover reporter… make an impact.. become a media star… help build a team …”
It’s okay not to know, it’s okay to ask
- It’s possible to create respectful ‘legitimised curiosity’. Instead of disabled people being alien, ‘not knowing’ is changed from disrespect to respectful interest. The Last Leg’s hashtag #isitokto encourages people to discuss what’s OK around disability. The Paralympics explained categorisations of impairments.
The power of popular culture to normalise
- Disability appears more normal when featured within another dominant topic. On ladsy late night chat show The Last Leg, disability is just another topic, a recurring one – but recurring just as football, sex or celebrity might be. This approach powerfully ‘normalises’ disability by portraying it subtly. Could we see Gardener’s World or Location, Location, Location include disabled people without comment (as they do for gay people)?
- Mixing disabled and non-disabled people is powerful. On The Last Leg the presenters are also a mix, which potentially breaks down the ‘us and them’ (they are all presenters, united in satire).
Other alternative discourses include:
- ‘Calling out’ the non-disabled, reversing who’s included/excluded and challenging what’s considered normal.
- Reversing the assumption that disability can only be a bad thing, e.g. “I celebrate my ‘MS birthday’”, “I celebrate Deaf Day. March 20th marks my entry to deaf life!”
- Resisting sharp line between us and them.
- Talking about technology and how it enables all of us, disabled and non-disabled people.
What do you think?
We know there’s a lot here, even in this short summary of what was a massive piece of research. How do you think we should be responding as campaigners? What does it mean for Scope and others?
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below or tweet with the hashtag #ScopeGameChangers.