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".
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.
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.