Recently I was embroiled in a twitter debate about language after the disabled model and actress Shannon Murray questioned my use of the term "cripple" when describing myself. As well as telling me that the word "cripple" is too offensive to use she also informed me that my using it also shows my age. I mean calling me old, that really hurt! But in all seriousness, she might be right. In my youth I was a singer/songwriter in a synth-pop band called Freak UK, along with two non-disabled guys (Hi Steve and Tony), had a series of t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Spaz God" and "Freak Boy", and always claimed "call me what you like; just give me the job" when meeting with media and music industry people. I am sure it was a remnant of my early teenage years dreaming of being a punk rocker which my parents forbade (yeah that worked out well didn't it?), but I felt a sense of empowerment when witnessing the shock some of the words drew out of non-disabled people when I used them in their company.
Actually before I go on, I should quickly mention another hot topic around language within the disabled community. Should we use "non-disabled" or "able bodied"? Or as a friend of mine always says the "not disabled yet"?
Anyway, back to the story. After I gave up on a career in the music industry I focused on my work in TV and I recorded many items on language and disability. I now began to see the considerable thought and time that was going into what language might be considered acceptable by society. Not only was I reporting on what was happening in society but I sat through many years of meetings while working at the BBC where what to call us disabled types was discussed. Over a number of years we rotated through "disabled people", " people with disabilities", "differently abled", "special" and "physically/mentally challenged" to name a few. After all of this beard stroking we returned to "disabled people" and it seems this is where we currently sit. However I have recently met many young disabled people who hate being called "disabled people" as they hate the word disabled. They like "abled", which to an old duffer like me makes no sense. But it does shows that language evolves and changes with time.
So what is it that makes "cripple", "freak, or "spaz" so offensive to some people? Another participant in our twitchat stated it was to do with how they were understood and used by the wider society. While this is true now, it doesn't consider how or why language changes. Take "queer" for example. When I was a teen New Romantic back in the early 80's, this was an insult thrown at my overly made up gang of male mates by casuals just before they beat us up. But now the gay community have reclaimed it. Some people use it as an insult but it just makes them look stupid and ignorant. Society has changed and anyone shouting "queer" at a group of effeminate men would no longer be the social norm. Well mostly. So is that it I asked? Do disabled people need to combine language with their fight for wider equal rights and acceptance, just like the gay rights activists of the 70's and 80's? Can we reclaim words? Most of the other participants in the debate seemed not to support this approach. They were more in favour of wiping any bad words out entirely. But when I asked what they did like to be called, I didn't get many replies. Other than "disabled people" and medical terminology for their various impairments no one had a quick slang word they liked. I don't know about you but I think always having to use "disabled people" would prove clumsy at times.
So without raising any answers what words should disabled people use to describe themselves? If we aren't going to reclaim the "bad words" are there any new ones we can use? Or are we stuck with "disabled people"? I must admit I don't know, and I am still amazed at the amount of worry, thought and time given over to these questions. But I will to continue to use whatever language I like to describe myself. You see I am a Freak/Cripple/Spaz and proud.