Advocating for Chelsea has required me to absorb a huge amount of new information. Medical and scientific sites are second nature to me and I can google a symptom or concomitant drug reaction with the best of them however the thing I find most exhausting is the language, more specifically the PC language of disability.
“Sticks and Stones may break bones but words will never hurt me” has never totally resonated with me and I have seen many different people crushed by the use of pejorative labels and names but I am appalled by the inconsistency that abounds particularly in the area of disability.
Not surprisingly the R word topped a BBC Top 10 list of the worst labels or words used about disability. While I have no idea what number 3 on the list is, some are subjective. While I don’t like brave or special and would never say handicapped, I have often stumbled over wheelchair bound to describe my daughter (in a wheelchair or wheelchair user?). To use Mong (are you listening Ricky Gervais) or cripple would be unthinkable but Psycho is quite commonplace for extreme behavior (having never met an actual psycho it’s also completely outside of my frame of reference)
and then there’s the S word.
I hear it on TV or in movies and often when I walk around our middle school where 6th and 8th graders are calling each other spaz, and even teachers refer to totally spazzing out on tests. It completely amazes, angers and frustrates me and always stops me in my tracks when it happens.
These are good people, great kids who would rarely if ever dream of using an offensive label. They are sensitive and caring right up until the moment when they aren’t. Sometimes right up until the moment when they stand in front of Chelsea in her wheelchair and tell how they or someone else is such a ….
The total double standards and failure of the PC Police to even attempt to eliminate this offensive and derogatory label amazes me. Yes, I know American’s justify the use of the term by insisting it means nerdy, clumsy and uncoordinated (duh) and Wikepedia chronicles the progression of the medical term from the Greek spastikos relating to changes in muscle tone associated with spasticity (especially in cerebral palsy) to a general supposedly “non derogatory” term for clumsiness.
So to liken clumsiness to the uncontrollable stretching and tightening of muscles that causes limbs to flail and twitch beyond the persons control is ok because it is what, appropriate, accurate or funny? To then use that description for people who are clumsy or can’t do something is acceptable. That’s the thing about the S word it is universally applied and crosses the offence divide insulting both the physically and cognitively challenged.
Forget the R word. Imagine how it would feel if people started calling each other Auts when they couldn’t remember something or control their behavior or emotions – there would quite rightly be outrage, and with their formidable power I have no doubt the special needs community would rise up and have the people ostracized and the word eliminated from schools and media use in a heartbeat.
So, tell me exactly how is the S word so different from the R word? To use the term in England as Tiger Woods did in 2006 to comment on a bad performance on the golf course will result in severe and instant criticism in the news media and from the general public. At the time , ADAPT America’s biggest grassroots disability rights organisation found out that most of their members didn’t even know about the Woods story as it wasn’t reported as widely in the US. But they did have views on the s-word.
“When people say ‘you’re such a spaz’ they’re talking about someone with cerebral palsy,” says Nancy Salandra from Philadelphia ADAPT. “People use it all the time but they are wrong. It’s part of the language now, like retard, but it doesn’t make it right.” (source BBC News)
Yesterday the disabled parking spaces at school were blocked by two cars whose owners had obviously given up waiting for a space to become available and just dumped them in the invitingly open blue spaces reserved for my monster truck of a wheelchair carrying Renault van. Irritating as it was, I know that I probably would have done the same 6 years ago. So my comment to the embarrassed and apologetic facilities manager who came to my rescue when I couldn’t park was, as always, that most people never think about what they are doing because they have no idea how hard it can be when you have a wheelchair or challenge to cope with. Learning from this and extending the idea further I realize the impact of the pejorative or offensive label is actually only ever seen or heard or ever thought about when you actually know about or think, see, hear or feel the person you apply it to.
I’ve talked to Chelsea about her stretches, as we call her spastic episodes, and asked her if they are painful. She says they are mostly irritating and embarrassing but also often quite painful just like the people who use the S word.
There’s really no excuse or reason to use it, so please don’t.