Merciful or Offensive: an Exploratory Study on Pitying Expressions Toward People With Disabilities

Updated April 21, 2022

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Merciful or Offensive: an Exploratory Study on Pitying Expressions Toward People With Disabilities essay

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The place of hate speech in law is claimed to contradict with the right to freedom of expression. The ongoing dispute between the concepts of hate speech and freedom of expression has produced quite controversial points of view. Political correctness advocates, the so-called social justice warriors and the opposition they face point to a problem concerning identity politics in contemporary and globally connected societies.

This research intends to be built on the effort of restructuring the concept of hate speech in political and legal contexts while creating a new concept, named as “unintentional offensive speech”, through the examination of interactions between people with disabilities and non-disabled people (NCDJ, 2018). The proposed study would be the first of its kind to focus on the interrelation between pitying expressions and their offensiveness. Exploring the discourse on pitying expressions which may be perceived as offensive by people with disabilities, as a natural result, would show the consequences of polarization caused by unawareness of sensitivities. Provision of a new perspective on this dispute that is suitable for the conditions of today’s world would improve the social and political place of people with disabilities.

Literature Review

Hate speech, the general umbrella term covering this research, has been defined differently in a wide variety of articles. Yet, it can be stated that the common point of all those definitions is that hate speech is offensive and assaultive. A general definition of hate speech refers to its goal of offending an individual, or a group based on minority characteristics. Cowan and Hodge (1996) states that hate speech is an aggressive expression of prejudice. The focus of hate speech definitions may differ in terms of mentioned minorities. Council of Europe (1997) emphasizes race, ethnicity, migrant status and immigrant origin in its definition. Religion is another focus of most of the definitions. Different minorities such as sex, gender and sexual orientation are mentioned in the definitions of Cowan and Hodge as well as Warner and Hirschberg (2012). However, there is little to no mention of people with disabilities as a minority group.

It can be deduced that hate speech has two distinct subcategories. The first one is, as Benesch (2014) described, dangerous speech that incites violence toward a specific group that can result in physical offense. The second one, offensive speech, is a sort of psychological violence.

While discussing the concept of hate speech, there is a need to define the approach of the researchers of this study to the disputes between hate speech and freedom of expression. Acknowledging that a person’s liberty ends where another’s begins, hate speech must be defined as a crime and this perspective does not stand in the way of freedom of expression.

The literature lacks studies focusing on people with disabilities, their political and social struggles. Hayes and Black (2003) have managed to construct a discourse of pity by examining visual media in the USA, mainly in Hollywood. They try to show that “independent and resourceful” representation of people with disabilities has been somewhat achieved but there is still a long way to go in order to create a less challenging physical and social environment for people with disabilities. Haller, Dorries and Rahn (2006) has conducted a similar study in written media in USA to highlight the triumphs of “No Pity Movement” by people with disabilities. In Turkish literature, there is only one study (Çömez and Sarıkaya, 2017) concerning people with disabilities and offending behaviors toward them which focuses only nurses in a medical circle and their interactions with people with disabilities. Expressions toward people with disabilities and especially pitying expressions, and people’s, who have disabilities, being offended have not been thoroughly covered in any academic study and writing. There is not a comprehensive discourse on pitying expressions toward people with disabilities efficient enough to show how they offend people with disabilities.

Theoretical Framework

“People first” approach (Haller et al., 2006) to this study is crucial to maintain a more social context. Disability, the main focus of this proposal, has been explained differently. Medical model of disability described by Humphrey (2000) reduces disabilities to dysfunctions and “locates the disabilities within the body and mind of individual.” This approach promotes pitying expressions, the main research area of this study, because it does not see that the environment is disabling. The social model, which is critical of this approach, will be in the center. Social model, again described by Humphrey, “redefines disability in terms of a disabling environment, repositions people with disabilities as citizens with rights, reconfigures the responsibilities for creating, sustaining and overcoming disablism [sic]’.

Intersectional theory, a tool (Mattson, 2013) that can be used to reflect critical views, focuses on how privileges and marginalities overlap. This theory will be the guide to this study. It will provide this study with a more objective point of view on being offensive and offended. In modern societies, people have their advantages and disadvantages in life either rooted in political and social marginalities and privileges or more complex, and psychological, individualistic conditions. As an effort to achieve an “anti-oppressive social world”, intersectional approach allows researchers to realize their place in “social structures and power relations”. The demand of a change in the language, in other words offensive discourse, in cultural politics (Fairclough, 2013) shows the importance of understanding minority sensitivities and improving social relations rather than forming an oppressive legal understanding. Analyzing the interrelation between political differences and minority identities in a social context is the theoretical concern of this study.

The definitions of hate speech and approaches to that concept, under the title of ‘Hate Studies’ have been found quite narrow. Therefore, this study is critical of the narrow definition of hate speech that fails to include offenses toward people with disabilities. Ultimately, this study will look for some wider concept s that will offer a new perspectives to the limits of offensiveness while creating a place for the struggles of people with disabilities in academic writings.

Research Design

As the intersection/common ground of political and socio-psychological studies, this research will offer insights to comprehend the struggles people with disabilities face in their daily life in both public frontier and virtual world. The period from 2005, the establishment of social media, until today will be covered in terms of virtual world.

The dimensions of hate speech, forming the core of this research, are dangerous speech, physical violence and intentional offensive speech, psychological Unintentional offensive speech, as a different branch of speech than hate speech, will be defined as using expressions that can be perceived as offensive without the intention of being offensive while shaping this study. Its dimensions will be unawareness and sensitivity.

Disability, as mentioned in the ‘Theoretical Framework’ based on the social model, will be defined as not being able to maintain one’s life due to physical conditions, such as blindness and body deformation; mental conditions such as low comprehending capacity and environmental conditions such as poor arrangements.

Pitying expressions will be defined as reactions caused by non-disabled people’s feelings of pity, mercy and sympathy without much consideration for the environmental conditions of people with disabilities. Its social and psychological conditions will be studied on. The indicators of pitying expressions, words such as “ah, vah, yazık” and so on, will shape the survey.

Offensiveness, defined as being repugnant to the moral sense and insulting, will be analyzed with its dimensions prejudices, judgements and stereotypes. The indicators of offensiveness of pitying expressions toward people with disabilities, pointing to the questions of this study, is that their social visibility being quite poor.

Cyclical model will be used because the initial stand, main argument and hypothesis of the study has been revisited and they have been changed according to what has been learnt from the readings, and new questions have emerged.

In our Large N Number study, theoretical sampling method will be used. This sampling method will allow the study to use inductive and deductive approaches simultaneously (when needed) in order to shed a light on the dynamics of offensiveness and how it is perceived. Starting with purposive (focused, specified) sampling and interviewing experts and comparing and contrasting the data, which will be maximum variation/heterogenous to provide qualitative insight into quantitative results, a more randomly varied pool will be constructed. The pre-defined discourse on pitying expressions will be dependent variable (explanandum) and the approaches of people with disabilities and non-disabled people will be the independent variables (explanans) of this study.

In the light of proving or disproving results, this study aims to construct a map showing the interdynamics of tolerance toward minorities and their struggles. Social and political exclusion of minorities, focusing on people with disabilities of course, might offer a new just way to share social power.


The debates on hate speech vary, with different sides caring more about the legal or political aspects than considering another dimension, which is psychological in terms of being offensive and offended. Those parties seem to take into account some common factors and their definitions have a limited set of criteria.

Following the finding out that there has been a problem concerning identity politics in modern societies, this paper is an effort to fill the gap in the literature on the topic of analyzing and reconstructing the concept of hate speech, and to create another concept as “unintentional offensive speech” especially for people with disabilities. If pitying expressions toward people with disabilities, without having the intention of offending them, are perceived as offensive, derogatory or humiliating then it is time to reconsider what is called social dynamics in terms of identity politics and minority issues. This paper intends to do so through the observation and examination of the interactions between people with disabilities and non-disabled people.

Therefore, the motives of this research are to provide a new perspective on those disputes, which have been mentioned above, that is appropriate and sufficient for the conditions of the contemporary world and to enrich the literature by creating or discovering a new concept.

Possible further questions this study will create, as a pioneer in this very area, after it has been conducted can be listed as a conclusion.

How the concept of dangerous speech can be adopted to the legal system?

What sort of issues people with disabilities have with law enforcement/police because of pitying problem?

While having compassionate feelings toward people with disabilities, if they have other minority identities (such as homosexuality) attached to them, do people have a tendency to use their disability against them?

Do charities function thanks to pitying feelings toward the less fortunate, such as people with disabilities or the poor?

What are the other minorities that face unintentional offensive speech and what are the patterns of those?


Our research questions:

· Questions that are directed to people with able bodies:

  1. If you meet people with disabilities, what do you think about their situation/condition?
  2. What do you feel when you see a person with disabilities?
  3. Would you mind being friends with people with disabilities?
  4. Would you mind working with people with disabilities?
  5. What do you feel when you talk to a person with disabilities?
  6. Do you use pitying expressions?
  7. If you so, do you use these expressions in face to face communication?
  8. Is your attitude different towards people with disabilities?

· Questions that are directed to people with disabilities:

  1. Would you like to be friends with non-disabled people?
  2. Would you like to be treated differently?
  3. What would you think or feel when you encounter pitying expressions?
  4. What do you feel if someone uses pitying expressions to you?
  5. Do you use pitying expressions toward the others/other minority groups?


  1. Benesch, S. (2014). Defining and diminishing hate speech. Retrieved from http://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/old-site-downloads/mrg-state-of-the-worlds-minorities-2014-chapter02.pdf
  2. Cowan, G., & Hodge, C. (1996). Judgments of hate speech: The effects of target group, publicness, and behavioral responses of the target. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26(4), 355-374.
  3. Disability Language Style Guide. (2018). Retrieved from https://ncdj.org/style-guide/
  4. Fairclough, N. (2003). ‘Political correctness’: The politics of culture and language. Discourse & Society, 14(1), 17-28.
  5. Haller, B., Dorries, B., & Rahn, J. (2006). Media labeling versus the US disability community identity: A study of shifting cultural language. Disability & Society, 21(1), 61-75.
  6. Hayes, M., & Black, R. (2003). Troubling signs: Disability, Hollywood movies and the construction of a discourse of pity. Disability Studies Quarterly, 23(2).
  7. Humphrey, J. C. (2000). Researching disability politics, or, some problems with the social model in practice. Disability & Society, 15(1), 63-86.
  8. Mattson, T. (2013). Intersectionality as a useful tool: Anti-oppressive social work and critical reflection. Affilia, 29(1), 8-17.
  9. Rosenfeld, M. (2001). Hate speech in constitutional jurisprudence: A comparative analysis. SSRN Electronic Journal.
  10. Warner, W., & Hirschberg, J. (2012, June). Detecting hate speech on the world wide web. In Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Language in Social Media (pp. 19-26). Association for Computational Linguistics.
  11. Waseem, Z., & Hovy,
  12. D. (2016). Hateful symbols or hateful people? Predictive features for hate speech detection on Twitter. In Proceedings of the NAACL student research workshop (pp. 88-93).
Merciful or Offensive: an Exploratory Study on Pitying Expressions Toward People With Disabilities essay

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Merciful or Offensive: an Exploratory Study on Pitying Expressions Toward People With Disabilities. (2022, Apr 21). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/merciful-or-offensive-an-exploratory-study-on-pitying-expressions-toward-people-with-disabilities/


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