End this casual abuse of disabled people

Published by The Times (12th July, 2017)

It was good to see swift action taken against the Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris after she used the racist expression ‘n***er in the woodpile’ at an event this week. Theresa May withdrew the Tory whip, rightly saying that ‘language like this has no place in politics or in today’s society’.

All the opprobrium heaped on Morris’s head is deserved — her use of the phrase reveals, at best, an anachronistic mindset. Most people accept that casual racism is not just offensive but deeply corrosive in society.

Yet where is the outrage when contempt is displayed towards people with disabilities? On the same day Morris’s remarks came to light, Dominic Cummings, key strategist behind the Brexit campaign, railed against ‘morons’ who were ‘near-retarded on every dimension’ in a row over nuclear co-operation with Europe. He is far from the only offender. And this highlights how one minority gets ignored in the battle against bigotry.

From the playground to politics, words such as retard, autistic, moron and spastic are flung as insults. President Trump routinely used ‘retarded’ to attack foes as well as mocking a reporter with disabilities, although this clearly didn’t bother his supporters. But then so do actors, singers, columnists and comedians. Frankie Boyle made disgusting and demeaning jokes about a disabled child — yet ends up being hailed by the left and given a BBC show.

Words matter. This is why Morris was suspended and if Boyle made racist gags he would be banned from TV. They matter especially if denigrating people with learning disabilities, the most excluded group in society. This helps to dehumanise them, fuelling abuse and making it harder for them to integrate. David Cameron once said political correctness was a good thing if it stopped people calling his disabled son ‘a spastic’. I feel the same about my daughter, who has learning disabilities.

The author Kathy Lette recalled last weekend how her son, who has autism, came home aged nine with a sign stuck to his back saying ‘Kick me, I’m a retard’. Some kids took him to a party purely to mock him. Others suffer far worse — beaten and even killed for being different. This is the most extreme form of prejudice. But how will anything change when words such as retard are acceptable and comics making hate-fuelled jokes get primetime shows?

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