More Than Words

by Alvan Yap

Every child and teenager know this. In the form of name-calling, insults and mockery, words have substantial heft and wicked sharp edges. And even if they don’t quite break us, being labelled and stereotyped – having to endure taunts such as “fatty”, “nerd”, “sissy” or “weirdo” – cut deeply and leave lasting scars.

As adults, we encounter and use more nuanced verbal means to put others down – through sarcasm, irony or parody – to go along with our firmer grasp of language and vocabulary. Some people grow thicker hides to blunt verbal slights and stings, or at least claim not to be too bothered by such. But for most of us, our suit of armour is too thin to deflect hurtful words, and we end up with ugly dents to our self esteem and purple bruises to our egos.

In other words, verbal abuse can inflict as much psychological and emotional harm as physical abuse. And in a sign of how seriously ‘hot air’ is being taken, signs on public buses and retail outlets have appeared, stating that verbal abuse of bus drivers and retail staff is not accepted and service would be withheld from those spewing abusive or vulgar language.

Should it be any different when it comes to how we describe people with disabilities? Surely not. In a gracious and inclusive society – the one we as a nation aspire to – disrespectful and demeaning language must not be tolerated.

(noun) public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy. What we need more of!

Advocacy (noun): public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy. (photo by Alvan/DPA)

A Disability By Any Other Name Isn’t The Same

This year, the Singapore Deaf and Dumb Association will be holding its 58th anniversary ‘Touching Lives in Silence’ gala dinner, while the Singapore Association for Retarded Children marks its 51st year of existence.

We know times have changed when we can be fairly sure most people will be offended when they read the previous paragraph. (I made it up, by the way. It doesn’t actually appear anywhere else.)

Of course, these voluntary welfare organisations no longer go by their original names. Now they are, respectively, the Singapore Association for the Deaf (renamed in 1959) and the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (renamed in 1985 and more popularly known by its acronym, MINDS).

More recently, just last month in fact, the Spastic Children’s Association of Singapore changed its name to Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore. And for good reason – I remember my secondary school days when classmates and I used “spastic” to punctuate almost every other sentence. We meant it both as an insult and term of endearment, but more often the former. (No, it wasn’t our finest hour.)

The University of Newcastle (Australia) has an official Inclusive Language Guideline which puts things in perspective from the linguistic angle:

The portrayal of people with disabilities as helpless, mindless, suffering beings deserving the sympathy and attention of the non-disabled is one of many powerful stereotypes which has led and continues to lead to discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities. People with disabilities should be portrayed in a positive manner.

Be careful not to imply that people with disabilities are to be pitied, feared or ignored, or that they are somehow more heroic, courageous, patient or ‘special’ than others.

Never use the terms ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ to refer to a person who has or has had an illness, disease or disability. These terms dehumanise the person and emphasise powerlessness.

(DPA will be querying our local universities whether they, too, have such a language policy.)

By now, it should be clear that language, and how it is used, shapes and mirrors our social reality. They are not just words. Language has immense power. And with great power comes great.. well, you know what Spidey’s dad said.

No Double Standards, Please
Ah. Dissenting voices. Let’s hear them.

There’s no need to be overly sensitive or too politically correct. Give and take lah.

Now, we do not condone racist, sexist or xenophobic language in our mainstream media. In fact, if such words appear in print or are spoken or used flippantly, imagine the outcry – and backlash and outrage – from the public at large. And that isn’t all; the authorities would probably step in as well, as they had done so before.

Because Singapore takes pride in its people’s multicultural diversity and holds dear the values of cohesion and harmony, the full weight of the law is ever ready to descend upon the unwise heads of those who stir up ill feelings through offensive or hate speech targeted at ethnic or religious groups. Seen in this vein, the disability community, as a minority group, is no less deserving of such protection and respect.

These people are just ignorant and don’t mean any malice. Educate them, don’t shame them.

For the unaware or ignorant among the general public, yes, let us educate and reach out to them. But let us also expose and shame the bigots and those who are manifestly malicious whenever we come across them.


Instead of a crude “HANDICAPPED” label, toilets at Jurong Point boasts more (linguistically) classy signs. (photo by Alvan/DPA)

In today’s more enlightened climate, I am sure the vast majority of people, whether disabled or non-disabled, will cringe whether they see such language used in print to describe persons with disabilities – “cripple”, “retarded”, “crazy”, “possessed”, “deaf-mute”, “deformed”, “midget” and other demeaning and depersonalising words.

Strangely, though, other disrespectful words and phrases continue to be used by the media. In fact, they thrive and spread with seemingly no restraint. But what, exactly, are these terms and what can we do about it?

That’s the subject of the next blog post which will also see the launch of a new initiative. Stay tuned!


Alvan is an advocacy executive with DPA. He pleads guilty to using “wheelchair-bound”, “spastic” and “freak” – the latter two in the derogatory sense – during his more youthful days, but he has cleaned up his act since.

For the record, Alvan – who is having an out-of-body experience right now talking about himself in the third person – identifies as a Deaf person (with a capital D) from the disability cultural perspective, but doesn’t mind being called “hard of hearing” or “hearing-impaired” if you really need a medical point of view to describe him. He welcomes feedback and comments at  


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