With the ALP leadership meltdown consuming much of the attention in Canberra last week, it’s hard to believe anyone got any time to do any governing. Somehow amid the fracas, there were two important actions. The first was the passing of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to create better funding for disability services, and the second was the apology to those who suffered under historic forced adoption practices.

Both were important because they acknowledged groups of people who have been marginalised, but they were also important because they illustrated the importance of language when talking to, and about, marginalised groups.

The government announced that the NDIS would now be known as DisabilityCare. The intention appears to be to align it in the public mind with Medicare, but such branding – while it may seem benign to most Australians – is very loaded for disability advocates. As Ramp Up editor Stella Young notes, disabled people are trying desperately to move away from care-based ideas of disability, which is tied up in notions that disabled people can’t look after themselves. The NDIS however, is about providing enough funding for disability services to give disabled people autonomy where feasible. Regardless of how forward-thinking the NDIS is, using such a loaded term in the re-branding was always likely to offend many disabled people.

On the very day the ALP exploded all over itself, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott both made national apologies to those who were affected by the practice of forced adoptions in Australia from the 1950s to the 1970s. While Gillard’s apology was generally well received by those who attended, Tony Abbott’s words of condolence did not go down so well. In his speech he used terms including “relinquish” (which implies some amount of choice in the matter), and “birth-parents” (which implies that their role their children’s lives is but a biological process). Much like the word “care” in a disability services context, these words are weighted with negative and hurtful attitudes for the parents and children who were forced apart, often by coercion. Abbott’s use of these words was out of ignorance, not malice, and he immediately retracted them.

Given that the Senate report on forced adoptions discussed the fact that the language of adoption, then and now, harmed those who suffered under the practice, and reading just how horrific it was for many of the young women, it highlights the need to know how to talk to, and about, marginalised groups, especially from a position of relative power. People with disabilities, and those who suffered under the practice of forced adoptions, are two very different groups of people, however both have been marginalised by society, both in action and in the language used to talk about them. Even though both the renaming of NDIS to DisabilityCare and Abbott’s use of “relinquish” and “birth-parents” may not have been intentionally offensive, when a group of people have suffered so much the least we can do is give them the right to choose the way we talk about these topics.

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