Pejorative group titles - what are they + how to avoid them

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Pejorative group titles - what are they + how to avoid them

Post by miriam »

<Gets on soapbox>

Please avoid pejorative group titles like "schizophrenics", "the elderly" or "the Learning Disabled" or "the mentally ill" (or "mental ward").

Why? Isn't this just political correctness?

This isn't PC gone mad (or should we say PC gone differently mentally focused :D), this is being reasonably respectful of the people that use the services we are paid to provide. Jokes aside, people who use this phrase tend to use it as an excuse to be prejudiced and ignorant because they lack insight into the power of language/labelling when it doesn't effect them personally, and I would hope that people interested in psychology and mental health would not fall into this category so easily. Either way, it is not acceptable on the forum, and shouldn't be acceptable in the workplace.

Some people might say that some phrases (eg "mental hospital") are commonly used and understood, and therefore acceptable. To that I'd say that the meaning of the word "nigger" is also commonly used and understood but that doesn't make it acceptable as a term of reference for a black person. Thinking of "mental hospital" specifically: Would you feel it is okay to say to a service user "I'm going to work with you because you are mental" or to a colleague "the mentals don't seem very happy about the change of routine"? I would hope not. So to call it "a mental ward" isn't okay either, it loses the humanity of the people receiving the service in order to cluster them by a pejorative label of their common symptom.

Older people or those with learning disability or mental health problems are still people. You can't say I'd really like to work with "the blacks" or "the gays" so why is it okay to homogenise people just because they have lived for more than 60 years, have struggled to cope with their feelings or they have less effective cognitive processing?

It might be politically correct, but as people who work with these issues, and understand the disempowering impact of societal dialogue on individuals, we ought to be setting the standard.

Would you like someone to refer to you by your characteristics? What if I made assumptions that all people called [insert your name here] are aggressive? or like to eat overboiled vegetables and go to bed when it gets dark? or need me to talk really slowly and loudly (or to others over their head)? How would it feel if I said to someone else I was just talking to "one of them dumb blonds/boring brunettes/moody redheads" or "one of those student types" or "some young girl/guy"? Does that feel as respectful as saying something more individual?

What group might a tabloid newspaper try to lump you into?

- binge drinker?
- drain on the taxpayer?
- serial student?
- immigrant?
- single parent?
- homosexual?
- promiscuous?
- drug user?
- overweight?
- teenager?
- geek?
- shy?
- skinny?
- socialite?
- Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Sikh/Buddhist/atheist
- hippy?
- posh?
- impoverished?

Try putting that word or words before your name in an imaginary tabloid article (eg "overweight immigrant Suresh Gupta" or "posh single mother Angela Shoesmith") and see whether it feels comfortable. Would you want people to make all the assumptions that follow from that descriptive word about you? So now think what it must be like to be "schizophrenic Alan Wells" or "learning disabled Ankhara Banda". We might not mean anything negative with these terms, but in the public perception they carry negative connotations so we need to be careful that we only use them in an appropriate context, and that we remember that they are not the only defining characteristic of the person involved.

What to avoid

Phrases that name a group of individuals by their common (normally negatively construed) characteristic. They often describe a group of people with a single word prefaced by "the" eg "the elderly". Or phrases where the service is defined by the negatively construed common characteristic, eg "mental hospital" or "autistic school".

Also, avoid phrases that place your own (normally negative) interpretation on people's experience. eg "suffering from psychosis/autism" (unless the person concerned told you they were suffering, as opposed to functioning in a way that differs from the norm).

So what should I say instead?

It is always better to mention the common characteristic of being people first, and what links them or marks them out from the majority second. So "people with a learning disability" or "older people" or "people with mental health problems" or "people diagnosed with psychosis". Try to avoid imposing your own subjective judgements about the person's experience, and acknowledge that a diagnosis is just a label and doesn't stop a person from being a unique individual.

Why bother?

Firstly its more respectful, secondly it won't cause offence to people who are within those groups on the forum or in your daily life (there are lots of us, and we don't carry flags to let you know our diagnosis or demographic groupings), and finally even if you only care about yourself - it won't rub people the wrong way when they read your application form!

<gets off soapbox>

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Content checked by qualified Clinical Psychologist on 24/01/2018
Last modified on 24/01/2018

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