Controversial comedian and outspoken atheist Ricky Gervais is being accused by tweeters of making fun of people with Down's syndrome after posting pictures of himself with contorted facial expressions and captions using a slang term for people afflicted with the disorder.
The outrage was ignited after Gervais posted the pictures with captions such as "getting monged-up" and "good monging everyone," the Daily Mail reported. In Britain, the word "mong," short for "mongol," is known to be a derogatory term for people with Down's syndrome.
Gervais' actions caught the attention of fellow comedians and disability rights groups who blasted the creator of "The Office" for his perceived insensitivity.
Comedian Richard Herring compared Gervais' use of the word to using racist or homophobic slurs and complained that comedians who would never dare use such risky language regarding race or sex, yet seem comfortable using slurs against the disabled community.
"I think many comics are guilty of using [slurs against disabled people] as convenient and humourless punchlines," Herring wrote on his blog. "I think they do equate with those racial and homophobic epithets that are rarely heard these days."
"They do confirm the stereotype of disabled people and contribute to their further isolation in a world that already tries to pretend they don't exist," he added.
Frank Buckley, of Down Syndrome Education International, agreed with Herring's comments. "Most would consider it as offensive as comparable terms of abuse referring to racial background or sexual orientation," he said, according to The Sun.
Alica Maynard, chairperson of Scope, a cerebral palsy charity group, said that it is necessary to be aware of the effect that the words one uses has on others, according to the Daily Mail.
"No one wants to see language policed," Maynard said. "But asking people to question their use of words – whether it is the words they use to describe race, sexual preference or disability – forces them to think about their assumptions."
She added: "We changed our name from Spastics Society to Scope in the 90s. For disabled people 'Spastic' was a negative term that was no longer relevant, as a charity we wanted to portray a positive image of disabled people living the lives they want to."
"We don't fool ourselves that just because the word 'spastic' may have gone out of polite conversation that discrimination no longer exists. But if taking a stand about the use of a particular word leads to others questioning their assumptions then we are on the right path," Maynard said.
Despite the backlash, many of Gervais' many fans came to his defense.
@Pippa777 tweeted: "@rickygervais as the mother of a child with severe learning difficulties, I say mong all the time! I mong out on the sofa regularly!!"
Gerbais also defended his use of the word "mong" by saying that although it was used to refer to Down's Syndrome, popular use of the word no longer had that connotation and currently means something closer to "idiot."
"Mong USED to be a derogatory term for [Down's Syndrome], Gay USED to mean happy. Words change. Get over it," Gervais tweeted.
Many fans felt the same way, like @DOUGJSTEWART, who tweeted, "I agree with you, I'm 24, attended Uni,1st Class Hons-never had a clue it was related to Down Syndrome #timesachangin."
The Daily Mail reported that the Down's Syndrome Association has spoken to Gervais directly about the matter and that they were dealing with it privately.