Those who only read news in English might be surprised to pick up a Thai-language newspaper and find the developmentally disabled called “retards” (panya orn, or soft-minded) and unsympathetic characters “cripple” or “lame.”
In addition to wanting things such as lifts to BTS Skytrain stations, people with disabilities in Thailand are also pushing for something more abstract, however – the use of less harmful and derogatory language by the news media.
At a meeting with journalists last week, a representative from The Bangkok School for The Blind said the media could improve greatly when it comes to how they word and frame stories involving the disabled. Raksak Chairanchuansakul, who is blind, said Thai-language media derisively calls attention to disabilities as a way to impugn criminal suspects in headlines and stories.
Raksak said people with disabilities tend to be unnecessarily stereotyped, when the same demeaning language is used to describe them time and again.
“It’s the responsibility of those who write the headlines to change the wording. They need to adjust their perspective,” Raksak said.
As an example, he said a story about an alleged criminal who happens to have a leg disability would refer to him as “the lame” (ai duan). Other words such as “retard” (panya orn) are often used to described someone dumb. Someone not doing something efficiently, said Raksak, would be described “doing something like a disabled person (tam muan khon pikarn).”
Raksak said new terminology is needed, and its usage normalized.
“The choice of words is important instead of choosing to dramatize” stories at the expense of disabled people, Raksak said.
The Rainbow Room Foundation, a Bangkok-based nonprofit, has in fact come up with a list. Pornpawee Kaikaewm, foundation spokeswoman, handed participants pamphlets containing words they use at the foundation, both in Thai and English.
Instead of “retard” they suggest using “people with intellectual differences or challenges.” Instead of calling someone disabled, the foundation used “a child or person with physical, intellectual, psychological challenges or differences” or “a child or person who is differently abled.”
An autistic child should be called “a child with autism” while a person with learning disability should be referred to as “a person with learning difference”. Disorder becomes “difference.”
The foundation’s argument is that we all have dignity and “deserve interaction with respect according to basic human rights.”
“Each word that we utter influences the thoughts and actions of the people around us and ourselves. If we think positively and talk positively, our actions will also be positive and constructive. Often, parents of children with special needs feel desperate and hopeless due to the words used by people around them who do not thoroughly understand the situation,” the foundation’s text reads.
Sadej Bunnag, Deputy Secretary General of the National Press Council of Thailand was receptive but pointed out that any changes would require time and training. Sadej pointed out however that newspaper headlines must be brief and are limited by the number of words they can contain, and that some of the preferred alternative words may not fit in. Chuwat Rerksirisuk, editor of Prachatai.com online news, said the constraint of headline space is a kind of “disability” for newspapers and online media in itself.
“There should be a dialogue. But try not to just ask for sympathy but to insist that you are not different from others as well,” Chuwat told the meeting which took place at Prachatai office in Bangkok and was organized by Foundation for Community Educational Media, Asian Network for Free Elections and Prachatai last Friday.
There was a sense of mutual understanding in the meeting room that the road toward such change would require research about the problem of Thai media’s characterization of people with disabilities and their choice of words. A book on the topic could challenge the media and society open a dialogue, the meeting was told. Training of journalists at different levels and possibly journalism students are also needed. Then there’s the question of how far “political correctness” can and should go.
Prachatai has in fact taken an initiative by launching a sister website called ThisAble.me just a month ago to serve the needs of people with disabilities without playing the pity-me card, added Chuwat. Its editor is in fact a wheel-chair-bound Prachatai female journalist, Nalutporn Krairiksh, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy. Nalutporn was also present at the meeting. She said she wants the new website to explore wide-ranging issues that attract not just people with disabilities but also the general public.
Nalutporn added that questions such as whether people with disabilities can have sex or should be in love would be explored.
“Can we push the issue of people with disabilities [covered by the mainstream mass media today] and expand it further?” Nalutporn asked after the meeting concluded.
Seven columnists, all with different disabilities, will help Nalutporn expand the issues in Thai language on her new site.