Tuesday 21 May 2013

only words....

Someone called me a spastic in the office the other day.  She was referring to my inability to come out and join them for a run by saying that "I was a bit spasticated".  It would be going too far to say that I was shocked by the choice of words, but I was certainly a little surprised.  I don't think anyone has called me that since I was at school.

Of course, back then, being called a "spaz" or a "joey", usually accompanied by the appropriate facial expression, was entirely commonplace.  It's all Blue Peter's fault, of course:

"In 1981, the last year of his life, Joey Deacon was featured on the children's magazine programme Blue Peter for the International Year of the Disabled. He was presented as an example of a man who achieved a lot in spite of his disabilities. Despite the sensitive way in which Blue Peter covered his life, the impact was not as intended. The sights and sounds of Deacon's distinctive speech and movements had a lasting impact on young viewers, who quickly learnt to imitate them. His name and mannerisms quickly became a label of ridicule in school playgrounds across the country".

No kidding.

I have no idea if it's true, but the story goes that the Spastic Society changed their name to Scope to try and escape the playground association, but all that happened is that subsequent generations of schoolchildren simply belmed at their mates and said "Scope" instead of "Spastic" at them.

Kids, eh?

I don't know if it's simply because I'm older or if we actually live in more enlightened times, but, on the whole, this kind of casual bigotry is far less commonplace than it used to be.  Back in the day, we were just kids and we didn't really know any better, but language is important and words can hurt.  The elimination of this kind of casual, unknowing prejudice from most people's everyday vernacular is an entirely good thing.  After the huge success of the Paralympics, it seems entirely possible that the average person's understanding of disabilities like cerebral palsy is much greater than it used to be, and surely we're all the better as a tolerant, accepting society for that... or at least heading in the right direction.

That said, I actually used the word "flid" in conversation last week too.  It's a word that I haven't used in more than 25 years, but one that we used to use all the time to mock someone for being a bit of a weakling.  I was talking about a colleague who always seems to be getting colds, and I joked to someone else that, "back at school, we used to call someone like that a flid".

No sooner had the words dropped out of my mouth than I realised, probably for the first time ever, the derivation of that word and I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself.  I hadn't used the word in years, but every time I had used it, I had been completely ignorant of what it actually meant.  Yeah.  Ignorant.  There's no better way of putting it.  I didn't know any better.  Well, now I do know and I won't be using it again.  Once in two decades is still once too often.

Words have power.  Choose them wisely.


  1. While agreeing that the 'power' of P.C. and more importantly legal stuff have been responsible for freezing intended insults between brain and lip, thus changing people's behaviour, do you think people's attitudes have changed?

  2. That's a really interesting question. Hmm. I was all ready to be glib about now being better than ever before but that there's further to go yet... but your comment about the gap between brain and lip made me stop in my tracks. I think I posted about something similar years ago: that sometimes none of us can control that initial tourettes-like impulse thought that pops into our heads. Sure, we might not say what we think, but the thought occurs.
    Have people's attitudes changed? Yes, I think they have. Mostly - you're not going to change everyone. We maybe can't change that base, reactive initial thought, but if we don't say it then that's got to be an improvement, hasn't it?
    And yeah.... just as surely as there are people that still say that stuff, I'm sure there are people who think it and believe it but know better than to say it. One step at a time. Are we a better, more tolerant place today than we were yesterday? Shit. There's a lot of hate in the world, but watch that footage of the NZ parliament legalising gay marriage and tell me we're not making tiny steps in the right direction.

  3. I actually initially used the phrase "political correctness" in the post and then took it out. Attitudes *are* changing. Not fast enough, maybe, but look at the Paralympics as an example of how far societal attitudes to something like disability have shifted even over the last ten years. It's for reasons greater than political correctness that Ellie Simmonds (to pick one example) has been embraced. It's because she's inspiring and a real hero.
    It appalls me to think that our Government may be moving away from a bill to legalise gay marriage because they're worried that people will switch to vote UKIP. Fuck that. What kind of country do we want to be? How do we want the rest of the world to see us?

  4. It's Jung, isn't it? Ego, Super Ego and ID. We all have an ID. Some are able to control it better than others.

  5. At the risk of raining on the post-Paralympian parade, has the publicity associated with the achievements and honours resulted in an improvement in the job prospects of and more importantly jobs for disabled people? The MS Society last month highlighted that only 25% of people with the condition were in full-time work. This evening, In Touch, a radio programme highlighting issues of particular relevance to visually -impaired people, reported similar figures for blind people. Moreover, the numbers hadn't changed for ten years, so we can't blame the recession. So not entirely sure whether expressed attitudes are translating into more inclusive behaviours, where it matters.

    Just saying.

  6. Do you think things are better than they were? Have attitudes changed at all? I'm not suggesting that the battle is won by any stretch of the imagination, nor am I saying that this is going to be easy....there are also reasons other than employer attitudes why some people with MS are not in full time work.

  7. Ellie Simmonds has a achondroplasia. She is also on massive posters in my local Sainsburys advertising sport for schools. I know she's just a single example, but she also symbolises a greater change in attitudes. The other poster boy in the same campaign is David Beckham. This won't happen overnight, but people with cerebral palsy no longer have to live their lives in mental institutions like Joey Deacon did within living memory.

  8. (only 25% of people with MS are in full time employment? Can that statistic really be true? That's an incredible figure)

  9. Yes, definitely. There has been a sea-change in the attitude and behaviour of people (i.e. the dominant majority) towards all minorities. The shore is in sight and I'm hopeful that it will eventually be reached.

  10. You're dead right about the gap between lips and brain and the epically slow progress in real change... Look at how the government here is portraying disabled benefits claimants as scroungers and is clawing a few paltry million pounds back and letting their mates and supporters off multi-million pound tax bills. There's a long way still to go, no doubt.

  11. Nicely put, Dan.
    Co-worker is a lot of fun, so she was just messing about and teasing me.... she's just getting started with running, and I've been encouraging her, and she's just getting to the point where she's comfortable running with other people, so it's actually kind of nice to be asked.

  12. Ah, so it was the "we pick on you because we like you" treatment.

  13. Basically, yes. Piss taking as a sign of affection.