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Within social care, remaining politically correct is essential to ensure professionals work in a way that is respectful, inoffensive and non judgemental.

Whilst the word ‘handicapped’ is still used within the definition of disability within ‘The Children Act 1989 UK’ and throughout the USA, (alongside retardation), this has clear negative connotations for disabled children with a direct impact on the oppression and discrimination of this group, since it implies a helplessness and weakness.

Ros Blackburn, a middle aged woman with severe autism who is particularly gifted and articulate in using spoken language and who enjoys nothing more than jumping on her trampoline, said in a Hertfordshire conference in 2006 that over the years, she has been labelled ‘handicapped,’ ‘educationally sub normal,’ ‘idiot’ and ‘autistic’ by professionals. She is now referred to as being ‘on the autistic spectrum’ and shared that labels were ‘our’ agenda, not hers. Yet, in her opinion, she does not care what she gets called, as long as she can go on her trampoline every week!’

Respite arguably has negative connotations since it implies burden, reliance and affliction of the individual needing respite, creating a power imbalance between those having a need, (service user/client) and those offering a facility to meet a need, (service provider.) In opposition, short breaks implies an equal partnership between service user and service provider, whereby the onus is on the individual receiving the break.

“Respite implies that that caring for a disabled child is a burden and respite is the temporary removal of that burden. The emphasis is on the needs of the parent, rather than the needs of the child. The term ‘short break’ is one that is generally used by the public to denote an activity which is a break or different from the usual activity carried out daily by an individual. The emphasis is on the person receiving the break i.e. the disabled child.” (Carlin 2004. p3.)

Different models of disability shape professional practice, power imbalances, oppression and discrimination. Service users are treated in different ways, impacting on how they are made to feel. Yet, “the terminology used to describe disabled people and services is important for several reasons. Terminology is an abbreviated method for indicating to others what or whom we are talking about. The words used to describe people with disabilities often convey a particular attitude towards these people and in turn, this can result in expectations that may or may not be justified. To take an extreme and now defunct example, people with learning difficulties were described as idiots, imbeciles and feeble minded (Mental Deficiency Act 1913) based on their assessed performance on intelligent tests.” (Fraser 2004. p191.)

A person with Down Syndrome suggests that the person is more than their disability, whereas a Down Syndrome person suggests that their disability is the encompassing sum of all their identity. This is clearly incorrect, as no one facet encompasses who we are as individuals effectively.

Moreover, and in the same realm as the above argument is the discussion as to whether I refer to disabled children that access respite as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ and as ‘disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities.’ Both have positive and negative connotations. ‘Service user’ implies someone is using something up or taking something. However, it also implies that someone has a right to such services. ‘Client’ implies someone is a purchaser of a service who has an equal relationship to the service provider. However it also implies the ‘client’ is a consumer of a service, although no goods or services are being bought or paid for. Likewise, a ‘disabled person’ implies positively that a person is disabled by society, rather than their disability although it puts the disability before the person, implying that this is somehow more important than the person. A ‘person with a disability’ implies the disability defines their identity as something that they have. However, it also puts the person first, implying that the person and their identity are not shaped by their disability. Therefore, no matter how passionate these arguments get, the end result appears to be one of personal preference and like the stated conclusion for the above argument about language and alongside Ros Blackburn’s thinking, I have decided to use these terms interchangeably.

What about with these examples. Is there a difference?

* Simon is six. He is autistic and doesn’t speak. He cannot wash or dress himself and still wears a nappy. Simon can be destructive. He eats inedible objects and sometimes he bites.

* Simon is six years old. He has short curly hair and big brown eyes. Simon has a communication disorder which is within the range of autism. He is able to communicate what he needs by pointing or taking you to the things he wants. Simon is quite vocal but does not talk as yet. Simon enjoys cuddles but only if he approaches you. He will play alone and stay well occupied for long periods in his own world.

Simon needs to be encouraged to try and assist with his self care. He eats with his fingers, but can be encouraged to use a spoon. Likewise he can be encouraged to co-operate and sometimes help with his washing and dressing. At present Simon is incontinent and needs to have his pads changed regularly as he does not indicate his toilet needs.

Simon is a very active child who loves the outdoors. He also loves to climb and sometimes takes risks which can cause him to fall. He has a taste for some odd things. A current favourite is Vaseline.

Simon likes to explore in great detail complex or intricate items. He is fascinated by them. He does not understand electricity, so care needs to be taken and anything breakable is best stored out of reach.

Occasionally, if very tired or frustrated Simon may bite or scratch. Mostly, however he is bright and happy engaged in exploring things of interest to him.

So, is there a difference and does the language we use matter?

My thinking and feeling is that language is important as it is a very powerful tool that can empower or oppress, promote or discriminate and this should be taken into consideration by all within all verbal and written communication.

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