‘Words are like weapons’ – Research shows power of language when talking about State institutions

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Galway Daily news Redress Scheme for Tuam Mother and Baby Home survivors opening March 20

Researchers at University of Galway have compiled a report on the language used when talking about institutions historically known as Mother and Baby Homes and County Homes.

The project sets out guidance for the public and those in power in relation to education, awareness, and actions which can be taken in response to hurt and offence caused by language used to describe experiences.

Based mostly on the testimonies of people who have direct experience of the institutions, either as mothers or from their childhood, the report provides guidance to tackle and eradicate the use of stigmatising language.

This language includes ‘unmarried mother’ and ‘illegitimate child’, which still cause hurt and offence today even though no longer officially in use.

The study identified many other words that should not be used like describing the institutions as ‘homes’ or people who spent time there as ‘residents’.

The study found terminology of ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ very contested and complicated, with some people identifying with this and others finding it offensive.

Many saw the need to have an alternative terminology, with one suggestion referring to persons as ‘separated’ using ‘scaradh’, as Gaeilge and the word ‘citizen’ promoted as a more acceptable term.

Highlighting the complex and diverse views of people, many different words that are used to describe mothers, and those who spent time in institutions in their childhood, are criticised.

The report has many examples of how use and misuse of stigmatising language by those in power has such an impact and needed to be changed.

It shows how those with power to influence often misrepresented, disrespected and reinforced stigma by their use of language.

Welcoming the launch of the report, authors Caroline McGregor, Carmel Devaney and Sarah-Anne Buckley commended the participants who contributed to the study.

Professor Caroline McGregor said: “Participants who contributed to this research project have given us a unique and in-depth understanding of the power of words and the hurt they can cause. As one person put it: ‘words are like weapons’.

“We thank all of the participants and steering group members especially the collaborative forum representatives for their significant contribution to this project.”

The report and a summary report are available at University of Galway – Unesco Child and Family Research Centre