Is it wrong to imply disabled people are not "normal"?

September 10, 2015   Opinion

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Iain Duncan Smith


Iain Duncan Smith has been criticised for calling non-disabled people "normal". Why does the word make people angry?

The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said in the House of Commons while defending the government's record on getting disabled people back into employment that "we are looking to get [the employment rates of disabled people] up to the level of normal, non-disabled people who are back in work."

Disabled and non-disabled people were quick to react to the implication that people with disabilities are not "normal". On Twitter such comments as "none of us are normal" and "diversity is normal" have opened up a conversation about what normality is and whether or not it should ever be used to describe those with disabilities.

The word itself is derived from the Latin "normalis" meaning a right-angle corresponding to a set square or carpenter's tool. George Walkden, a historical linguist from Manchester University says that later it became more linked to conforming to a set of standards and in the 16th Century it evolved further to mean ordinary.

Image caption People on Twitter have questioned whether "normal" even exists

"The use of the word implicitly divides people into two groups - with abnormal, the currently used antonym, carrying negative connotations," Walkden says. "The problem is that those who have been classified as not normal have a problem with it, it creates a sense of 'them' and 'us'.

"It's very context-dependent and doesn't mean the same things to everyone, it's all about who and when. If I say a normal chair has four legs then that's OK."

Another connotation of normal is that it should be something we strive towards which, Walkden says, in the case of many disabilities, is cruel because it is referring to things that can not be changed.

While many wouldn't bat an eyelid at using the word "normal" to describe non-disabled people, wheelchair user Mik Scarlet says he has encountered it his entire life.

"Normal just shouldn't exist anymore because I don't think anybody can really define what it is," he says. "If we can get past this idea of normal then we can be truly equal and nobody would need to be described as such.

"I meet so many young disabled people who say they just want to be normal, that's all they want, and actually I think anybody who strives for that has missed the point of life, really. For me it is much better to see yourself as not normal and different because that is just more interesting."

But Pipa Riggs, a blind woman from Scotland has a different opinion, maintaining that Duncan Smith was technically correct in his use of "normal" to describe non-disabled people. "Based on the fact we are seen as 'disabled' infers we are not as able as the majority," she says, "and another way of describing a majority is as 'normal' so I think he was justified in his usage," she says.

Image caption Mik says he doesn't want to be "normal"

Dr John Hughes, a GP in Manchester says that the medical definition will vary greatly from a social usage of the word and it is important that doctors have a standardised view of what "normal" means.

"In medicine there are normal ranges for most things, blood tests, heart rate etc and anything outside of what is the normal range is considered abnormal," he says.

At its most basic level, Hughes says, "normal" is defined by doctors as having two arms, two legs and a healthy set of organs and mind. But, he adds, nuances do still exist and doctors will have their own, individual view of what "normal" is.

"Take autism and Aspergers which are on a very wide spectrum and you will find that psychiatrists often have a much lower threshold than GPs of what may constitute those conditions. And then look at the terminology often used around autism, that somebody can have 'high functioning autism' placing them closer to what we believe is the 'normal' way a brain should be."

Hughes says that doctors ultimately tend to use themselves as a benchmark for what is "normal", so the word is certainly up for interpretation in the medical profession too.

Ian Macrae from the website Disability Now (who is blind) says Duncan Smith was using a subjective term in an objective way.

"I view everything about me as normal. The technology I use for example, is to me not at all out-of-the-ordinary, but it would be to somebody else". He goes on: "I used to attend the Royal Normal College for the Blind. Normal was used in its name the way it was used in America to identify a training college. The irony was not lost on us blind kids because we were well aware that we, and the institution, were definitely not considered as the norm."

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