It was disappointing to hear on last Friday night’s 7pm news bulletin on Radio 4 someone described as “severely handicapped”.
The term used should have been “severely disabled”.
I am by no means the PC police and I recognise an institution like the BBC (and particularly Radio 4) probably doesn’t want another ticking off by anybody about its use of language. But in this case (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming), what flows from the language is so important that I wanted to make a note of it.
There are various models of disability. The two most common are the “medical” model and the “social” model.
The medical model focuses on the medical condition of a person – their impairment, their disease, their ‘handicap’. And it looks for ways for these to be diagnosed, categorised and ultimately cured. What flows from the medical model of disability is typically a focus on someone’s physical or mental condition rather than the person themselves.
The social model of disability puts the person at the centre. It says that a person is disabled by society around them – not just physical barriers such as steps or revolving doors, but also by attitudes towards disabled people (such as pity, charity or fear).
Though a disabled person still has an impairment (i.e. in the broadest sense their condition), what makes them disabled is not their condition, it’s society.
Many important things flow from this shift in thinking (for anyone who is interested in more about different models of disability and their implications this guide is an excellent introduction). One of the main implications is in the use of language to describe disability and impairment. To talk of “able-bodied” people is to approach the topic from the perspective of the medical model because you’re thinking in terms of what people can and can’t do. To talk of non-disabled people, however, is to take a social model approach, since you’re noting that there are some people who aren’t disabled by society around them.
The social model is incredibly important because it changes the way people think about disability. Instead of thinking “what’s wrong” with the disabled person, it makes you think about how your behaviour and your attitude is preventing the disabled person from being treated equally. By supporting this through positive language – namely language informed directly by the social model of disability approach – so we support disability equality more widely.
Which is why Radio 4’s use of ‘handicapped’ was so disappointing because, at the most fundamental level, it reinforces the medical model of disability and the idea that the problem lies with the person, not society.
I understand from friends and colleagues that this isn’t a one-off. Without wishing to be patronising, sanctimonious or plain rude, I’d therefore like to offer a free session on the social model of disability for any of Radio 4’s newsreaders, continuity announcers or presenters. I have no doubt that they will have received as much training and support as is humanly possible on this topic and much else besides. But whilst these occasional references to medical model-type thinking keep happening, so I’ll keep offering until they accept.
(If you agree with this post and hear of any instances on the BBC – or indeed elsewhere – of a medical model approach, please feel free to let the BBC know about my offer. There are many Radio 4 newsreaders, continuity announcers and presenters on Twitter, for example, so any retweets of this post or @ messages directed at those lovely folk might do the trick. You can get in touch with me via Twitter @rich_w.)