Controversy once again propelled Ricky Gervais into the spotlight this week, following a series of tweets using the word “mong” – which many people will remember from their school playground as a term of abuse for people with learning disabilities.

They came accompanied by photographs of Gervais making faces also most familiar from school playground days.

Gervais does of course have the right to free speech, even if he decides to use it in a way which fellow-comedian Richard Herring calls “a bit odd and pathetic” and others might just call embarrassingly unfunny. Free speech means the freedom to offend people – but it also means that others are free to challenge vociferously the things you say or write.

The really troubling thing is that the undoubtedly intelligent Gervais seems to have no awareness of just how ugly this kind of language is and how often it is hurled at people with learning disabilities. Indeed, he claims that the word as it is used now has nothing to do with disability, which seems either ill informed or disingenuous, and certainly doesn’t tally with the faces he is pulling in those images.

If this was just a case of controversy-of-the-day, Gervais’ unfunny antics might not matter so much, but (in a report published today by Inclusion London in collaboration with the University of Glasgow reveals) we are living in a climate where there has already been a marked increase in hostility towards people with disabilities, particularly in certain aspects of the media.

This has largely been fuelled by increased scapegoating of people who claim disability benefits, and the worryingly popular if utterly unsubstantiated allegation that many of them are cheats. Take a look at Kaliya Franklin tackling Ed Miliband on just this subject and defying the stereotype of disabled people as “scroungers”.

Do Gervais’ tweets intentionally feed into this distorted perception of people with disabilities? No. Do they contribute to a climate where people with disabilities feel particularly vulnerable to abusive language? That’s certainly how many people with disabilities see it, and - despite Gervais’ dismissal of all who have criticised him on this as “idiots” – they should be listened to.

This is not a call for certain words to be banned or subjects to be declared “off limits” for comedians, writers etc. It’s a call for people to think about the way that they talk about other human beings and try to be decent – and this applies whether you’re a vastly successful comedian, an MP, a journalist or anyone else.

Jaime Gill, head of press and public affairs.