Political correctness is sometimes lame

Ever changing terminology tells us how to refer to people with disability, but heartwarming words don’t automatically guarantee a change in attitude.


In Barfi!, the hero, played by Ranbir Kapoor, is referred to as goonga-behera, or ‘dumb and deaf’. So what is the politically correct term for him: ‘hearing and speech impaired’, ‘auditory challenged’, ‘disabled’, ‘differently abled’, or the more recent, ‘person with disability’?


In the film, the rude ‘dumb and deaf’ makes sense as it is a loud policeman calling him that. But how much of a consolation is heartwarming terminology for people with disability?



Prof R Rajaram, the first Indian with cerebral palsy to earn a PhD in English, believes there is a strong case for sensitive phrasing. “It makes a crucial difference. Such terms not only raise the level of consciousness of those who are unaware, but also helps acknowledge the self esteem of the challenged person,” he told Talk.


The use of incorrect terms gives a sense of superiority to the speaker, which is uncalled for. Social worker Tara Ramkumar agrees. “Words and their connotations have an impact. A change in the vocabulary can bring in social change,” she says.


While this is the standard view among educated disabled people in urban areas, we also came across some exceptions. For instance, when Talk recently interviewed the mother of H N Girisha, London Paralympics silver medallist in highjump, she referred to him in Kannada as a ‘kunta,’ which translates to ‘lame’. His brother too used the word. Here was a world-class athlete from a Hassan village, whose closest relatives continue to call him ‘lame’ even after his glorious high jump win, simply because they are unaware of the concept of political correctness.


G K Mahantesh, founder of Samarthanam, an organisation that has trained hundred of people with disability for BPO jobs, says, “In villages, a short person may be called kulla or gidda.”


Outsiders may find such words crude and insensitive, but there is no insult intended. Mahantesh says the lack of awareness is one problem, but there is also the difficulty of coining politically correct words in the regional languages.”


Prof Rajaram suggests TV soaps should take up the cause and sensitise people in the regional languages. Bangalore-based writer Deepa Bhasti, who has an impairment in her hand, doesn’t care what people call her. Her classmates in school called her handicapped, but it never affected her spirit, she says.


“In government records, people with disability are still referred to as handicapped. The word doesn’t make a difference and the main thing is how people treat you,” she says. She believes she is ‘normal’, and gives credit to her mother, who treated her as normal, and asked her to do her work on her own. “Even if it was the simplest of things like tying shoe laces, I had to do it myself. If I said I couldn’t, she would ask me to find a way,” she says.


The TV programme Satyamev Jayate had an episode dedicated to people with disability. One of the participants found the politically correct word “differently abled” patronising. He preferred to be called ‘disabled’.


A similar sentiment was voiced most famously by Bill Veeck, an American baseball team owner, whose 1962 autobiography is titled I’m Not Handicapped; I’m Crippled. He writes, “You will notice I always use the term ‘cripple.’ It isn’t a word you normally hear, is it? It has become customary, in our euphemistic world, to describe us cripples as ‘handicapped’… Webster defines ‘handicapped’ as ‘to place at a disadvantage’. I don’t believe I am. I believe I can do anything that anybody else can do that doesn’t involve quick sprints, high jumps and a fast buckand- wing. And so, although I am crippled, I am not handicapped.”


Many times, those who use the right words may not necessarily have empathetic feelings towards those with disability. “I have seen people use the correct words when they are on stage. As soon as they are off, they show scant regard to people with disability. More than using the right words, they have to be considerate,” says P K Paul, founder of IDL Foundation, which works with blind people.


Both Paul and Samarthana’s Mahantesh vote for the use of politically correct terms, but their organisations continue to use the word ‘blind’. Paul’s organisation has a band called IDL Blind Band. He says: “Blind is a universal word. We cannot change it. It is better to use it for a group than for an individual.”


Samarthanam is organising a cricket event, the ‘T20 World Cup for the Blind’. “Everywhere the word is used, even in government records. So, we’ve stuck to it,” he says.


A blogger who calls himself Bock the Robber says new euphemisms often gain negative connotations with time. One of his posts says: “Banning particular words won’t change anything. The word ‘retarded’ was originally a well-intended euphemism to replace ‘slow’ but it gradually acquired pejorative overtones. So will all the new terms that replace it, because the problem lies inside people’s minds, not in the words they use.”



What is political correctness?


It refers to terms that attempt to describe people in the most neutral and objective way possible. The ‘correct’ terms try to soften words or phrases considered offensive or humiliating.


Why should we use the politically right terms?


Some words could hurt and bring down the selfesteem of people with disability. Use the politically correct word unless the person you are addressing asks you not to. This is a way of showing respect.



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