Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has been widely criticised this week for calling non-disabled people, ‘normal’.  But, judging by some of the responses we’ve received at Aspire, the concern about his choice of language is not universal.  So, what’s the big deal and does the language we use day to day really make a difference?

In a sense, of course, ‘normal’ could be taken to mean ‘majority’; disabled people are a minority group compared to their non-disabled peers.  But it’s a pretty big minority, with around 15% of the UK’s population being disabled.  As a comparison, that’s about the same as are in their 40s, a little more than those who are left-handed, and three times the number of us that are gay.  My colleague who has just had his 40th birthday assures me that he still feels normal, and the relatively recent growth in the number of lefties is linked to teachers accepting that it is normal for people to write with their preferred hand. Would it be OK to ask whether someone’s sexual preference is gay or normal?  And with the 2011 Census showing that the UK’s population was 87% white, what would the reaction have been if a Minister had stated that, “we are looking to get the employment of people from Black and Minority Ethnic communities up to the levels reached by normal people...”?

The English language is minefield of alternative meanings, hidden nuances and word associations. ‘Normal’ does not mean ‘majority’ to most people, at least not completely, which is why the hypothetical scenario of being, ‘black or normal’ grates so much. But when it comes to disability, too often people are not as respectful with their language.

Being labelled as not being normal carries significant negative connotations, we just don’t always spot them.  And a lot of the time, we probably don’t spot them because the negative implications have themselves become the norm.  Disabled people continue to face significant barriers, some deliberate and some incidental, in their daily lives – challenging perceptions of disability is fundamental in removing those barriers and our use of language is a good marker in the progress we make.

Normalising the marginalisation of disabled people through the language that is used – in public, in the media and yes, in Parliament – is a huge issue to many people and Iain Duncan Smith should know better.

Written by: Alex Rankin, Director of Services