Sticks and stones break bones, but words wound. This explains why there are such howls of outrage when a low-rent celebrity makes a joke about "Pakis", or when a newspaper columnist delivers a diatribe against homosexuals. Casual racism, crude stereotyping and abuse towards a minority is not just offensive, but corrosive.
So why is it acceptable against people with disabilities? When did they become such a forgotten minority that they ceased to matter in the battle against bigotry? A group so exiled still from mainstream society that it has become acceptable to fling around hateful words such as "retard" and "spazz" without a murmur of disquiet. Not just in the playground, where these words and many more like them are commonplace, but online, in the office, in the home and in Hollywood.
This week, we had two of the hottest young actors, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, describe rumours of their romance as "so retarded". Last month, Guy Ritchie used the same word to describe his former wife. Previously, it was Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, Russell Brand and Britney Spears. Imagine how their careers would have nose-dived if they used language offensive to gay or black people.
Go on to YouTube and look at all the videos of people dancing "like a retard". Or go on to MySpace and find an oh-so-funny gallery entitled "Adopt Your Own Retard". Or go on to any one of dozens of internet sites and laugh at the jokes about "retards". Or go on to the most popular political blogs and see the word bandied around as a term of abuse; one left-leaning site failed to spot the irony of a rant about "homophobic, racist retards" in a recent posting on the BNP.
But then, even the first black president makes derogatory jokes about the disabled, while a leading French politician yesterday used autism as a form of political abuse against the Tories, and a supposedly-liberal newspaper splashed it across its front page without comment.
As the parent of a child with profound mental and physical disabilities ... it is deeply upsetting to hear words once used to describe my daughter thrown around as a casual insult. But far worse than my own bruised sensitivities, language reflects how we view the world, reinforcing the exclusion of people with disabilities from the rest of society.
When people with physical disabilities are figures of fun and mental incapacity is a term of insult, is it any wonder my daughter gets unpleasant stares wherever she goes? Is it any wonder parents complain over the appearance of a children's television presenter missing part of one arm? Or a major fashion chain insists that a similarly-disabled worker is hidden out of sight of customers? Or that a college allows classmates to hold a vote to ban a student with Down's syndrome from a barbecue party, as happened this summer?
We are retreating in the fight to offer respect and inclusion to more than one million of our fellow citizens. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, admitted to me that the promotion of disabled rights had fallen back in the past decade while schools concentrated on racism and homophobia. And as the struggle for inclusion in society gets harder, the stares get more pronounced, the insults more widely heard, the harassment worse – and more and more people with disabilities will abandon their personal battles and withdraw to their ghettos.
Is this really what we want? Or should we at the very least start to mind our language?
This i s obviously a plea from the heart from a father who cares deeply about his daughter and hates to hear words which insult her. We must all empathise with that. But as the PCC pointed out yesterday in their judgement in favour of the Daily Mail, the right to offend still exists, and rightly so. Where do we draw the line? How do we judge whether society finds one word acceptable and not another?
I think what Ian says is true - that society finds the use of the word 'retard' far more acceptable than any of the others which I list at the beginning of this piece. If Ian's wish for the word to cease being used is to be realised it is not something which you can legislate for. Society, in the end, will make it so. If it wants to.