Stigmatising language only reinforces prejudice, but designers can defeat it

Implicit in my criticism of the Alzheimer’s Society’s use of the word ‘dementia’ (Letters, DW 4 October) were two issues I feel are important for designers and communicators.

Implicit in my criticism of the Alzheimer’s Society’s use of the word ‘dementia’ (Letters, DW 4 October) were two issues I feel are important for designers and communicators.

The first is one to which David Bartholomew (Letters, DW 11 October) refers. I understand his opinion, but describing as political correctness the evolution of medical terms into more empathetic language isn’t helpful. The second was touched on by the remarks about prejudice made by the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society (Letters, DW 18 October). It’s that prejudice I was addressing.

Many of these terms mutate into stigmatising clichés. But they still need to be pushed out of circulation by effective communication. However ‘correct’ the word dementia is, it’s an unpleasant catch-all description and the cause of some of the prejudice the Alzheimer’s Society aims to diminish.

Language shapes attitudes, but is still treated thoughtlessly by designers – who could do more by changing their own attitudes and using creativity to transform the often gloomy environment of aging into a supportive and pleasant one.

To settle for good typography at the expense of meaning is wrong. Words like dementia can curtail possible responses. John Diamond, in his book about cancer, objected to the whole idea of ‘fighting’ his condition. He didn’t see it as a battle, he saw it as a journey.

Institutions that lobby for understanding and work to improve care usually use language carefully. That’s why the Spastics Society changed its name to Scope. That’s why the words ‘retarded’ or ‘mentally handicapped’ are not heard any more and the expression ‘learning difficulties’ is now used, transforming how we think about and treat people. It’s not about being PC.

Many people – designers, too – who haven’t faced what can be catastrophic difficulties in their own families or lives don’t realise that demeaning terms like ‘mongol’, ‘spastic’ or ‘cripple’ can be crushing, as well as bad for fundraising.

This is about empathy, common sense, plain English and reducing medical jargon. Changing the way that we perceive aging is an opportunity for designers. It’s less about language and graphic design, and more about thinking as product designers and creating new products, or as architects and changing the way we live. Designers could make a major contribution.

I have personal experience of people with memory loss and with how people’s brains change as they get older. I visit a care home every week and see how easy it is to be prejudiced. We must embrace the way we ‘change’ as our brains function differently, and become an inclusive, respectful society, not one that locks people away and pretends they just aren’t there.

In the case of the term dementia, I don’t think we realise that allowing people to confuse memory loss and changed functioning with echoes of insanity can be abusive. Would any designer, or charity, support bringing back forgotten phrases like ‘insane asylums’ or ‘Bedlam for the Demented’? I doubt it.

Michael Wolff, Founder, Michael Wolff & Company, London WC1

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