I’m a great lover of language. I like to write and I would gladly replace all meals with some quiet time and enough concentration to read a good book. Mainly, I really love swear words. There are some words though, that I hate. They include words which are used to attack people with disabilities and they seem to be becoming more prominent.
When I was a child Scope was still called The Spastic Society. They changed the name because the term spastic had become a pejorative term. Children up and down the country would throw “spastic” and “spaz” around as the insult du jour. Perhaps The Spastic Society had hoped that by changing their name to Scope the insult would stop being thrown around with such alarming regularity. Though we can now see the effect was far from it! Now people simply argue that “the word doesn’t mean that anymore”.
Just yesterday on Twitter someone had posted a link to a Miley Cyrus video where she was performing a cover of Melanie Safka’s Look What They’ve Done to my Song. Growing up it was one of my favourite songs. Melanie, for those who don’t know, sounds remarkably like Gonzo as a muppet baby, who has smoked fifty-a-day for ten years, but can still carry a good tune. It’s a voice which is both interesting and powerful. The song has always made me think of the way the world screws with you so that your intentions end up far away from their origins and you’re left feeling a little deflated and nearing that period of euphoric exhaustion. My love for this song led me to comment on their link “Miley Cyrus singing a Melanie Safka classic is just plain fucking rude!” It is though, right? It’s bad enough that the New Seekers gave it a bash but Disney alumni- not on my watch! In retrospect the guy turned a bit grumpy but at the time I didn’t really get that this conversation was not the light hearted discourse about music I believed it to be ( I didn’t place this adult male as a hardcore Miley fan), he replied: “Are you one of the people spazzing out over the VMA?” Normally ableist language makes me go straight into “I’ll eat your soul” territory, but the guy didn’t generally seem to be an arse so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, “Do you know the term spazzing out is a reference to cerebral palsy? Ppl w/ CP find it really hurtful.” Well apparently there is nothing more offensive than asking someone if they realise their language could really hurt someone. His response was, “Are you really playing an ad hominem attack? Well, you’re not an honest participant here.” Yikes, I didn’t know that my defence of Safka’s honour was an argument anyway, but to suggest that my questioning whether they understood the meaning of their words was a ploy not to answer to their question about (what I think meant) whether I cared about the VMAs was not the reaction I was expecting!
Now I’m sure you don’t care about my Twitter conversations, but this is the most recent example I have of a widespread phenomenon. It should be an internet law in the vein of Godwin’s law that when a person with disabilities points out that someone is using offensive language they will instantly turn the situation around so that it is the offender who becomes the offendee (henceforth this shall be known as Bottomface’s Law). Basically adherents of this law will call you a shithead if you ask them if they realise calling you a spastic is genuinely offensive to people with CP.
Another wonderful internet response to being called out on ableist language is to tell the person offended that they are “grammar Nazis”. This nicely incorporates both Godwin’s and Bottomface’s law. This is often followed by the assertion that “words change!” and “it doesn’t even mean that anymore”. It’s really nice of the non-disabled folk to tell us that when we’re being called cripples, spaz, spastics, mongs, retards and mental because of our disabilities we’re actually just imagining it. Thank fuck for that because I was under the impression that the official statistics which state that disability hate crime is on the rise were correct! Fuck it, this ploy deserves its own law too- let’s call this one Gervais’ Law after he insisted that he’d magically altered language so that the word “mong” was no longer offensive to people with Down Syndrome.
When my son was still in mainstream school he was regularly called a “retard”. This was a direct result of his autism. He pulls faces, prefers miaowing to English and is quite convinced he’s got dinosaur DNA. The other kids didn’t like his awesomeness, finding anything “different” to be an offence to the conformity drummed into their little brains and so he was labelled a “retard”. In fact this was one of their favourite words to chant at him as they pulled his trousers down repeatedly. They also still like to use the word when talking to my other son when for some reason they take great pleasure in blurting at him “your brother’s retarded”. But hey, good news! None of that could have happened because the Gervaisians have thankfully informed us that “words change!” Where would we be without their insight? Apart from in a better world for people with disabilities.
Of course, we can’t just blame THEM for their erroneous beliefs. The blame really rests with their good luck! They are bound to think that these words are no longer insulting to people with disabilities because they’ve had the good fortune not to have a disability in the first place. They’ve been able to walk (note: not wheel) through life completely oblivious to the ways in which this language is still very much used to insult people with disabilities because, by the very nature of their non-disabled status, they’ve never had to be on the receiving end of these words in their original and cruel meanings. However, they can be blamed for not listening when people with disabilities point out to them that these words are horribly offensive and hurtful and they can be blamed for taking offence that someone could be upset by their CHOICE of language. These people seriously need to get on board with the idea that when a disabled person tells them their words are ableist then they should prick up their highly functioning ears and bloody well listen. These people are prone to also stating that offence is not given but taken, or some such other bollocks, which basically means that they are not willing to take responsibility for the words which come out of their own mouths.
And just in case there are any Gervaisians reading this still playing the “words change” card let’s have a quick look at what was revealed by typing “Spaz meme” and “retard meme” into google. Note- all of these appeared on the first page!
John Donne said that “No man is an island, Entire of itself” but in the case of these people one cannot help but wonder if it would be better if they were.