Use words with care

March 31, 2014

I thank Associate Professor Chong Siow Ann for his illuminating take on the insidious, yet pervasive, use of language carrying negative connotations against mental illness (“Fighting slurs on mental illness”; last Saturday).

The misuse of professional psychiatric terms in everyday conversations trivialises serious conditions and creates stigma against the mentally or intellectually disabled.

As easy as it is to be careless with our words, few realise what a great disservice we end up doing to those suffering from mental illnesses.

The same also applies to terms associated with physical disabilities. It is common to hear people casually describing themselves or, worse, others as “blind” or “dumb”, or use the terms as a means to criticise.

It may not be immediately obvious to some, but in doing so, we impinge on the dignity of those who live bravely with these conditions.

My valued colleague was afflicted with polio when she was 10 months old. Today, she can walk only with the aid of callipers and crutches. But she is anything but “crippled”. She lives alone, does everything herself, and drives around in her specially equipped vehicle. She is, in fact, more “abled” in the way she lives with her physical challenges than many able-bodied people I know.

Such people are an inspiration and it is not kind to use words that derogate their worth and significance.

Language is a powerful communication tool and the ways we choose to use it play a significant part in determining its effects, positive or negative, intended or otherwise. To avoid the harmful repercussions, mutual respect should be a larger consideration in the way we communicate with one another. What it will take is a little more thoughtfulness and empathy.

Before we toss around loaded words in our everyday conversation, whether in person or online, it is imperative to consider if these are words to be used with sensitivity and within the correct context. This way, we can better avoid hurting feelings and perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes due to little else but our own negligence.

Dr William Wan
General Secretary
Singapore Kindness Movement

First published in The Straits Times – March 30, 2014

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