How disability got a bad name

10th March 2000 at 00:00
THIS week I want to tell the true story about a group of right-thinking doctors who got together one day and decided that "cripple" was a cruel and pejorative term for those suffering cerebral palsy.

A new word should be coined, they said. A word which could not be used as a term of abuse. That word was "spastic". As you can imagine, this discussion happened a long time ago because by the time I was at school "Spaz" had become a term of abuse and right-thinking people were trying again to think of a new word which would not lend itself to negative associations. First they thought of the catch-all term "disabled". Then "differently-abled" and finally "challenged". And yesterday, for the first time, I heard two boys at the bus stop sniggering about one of their school friends: "God, he's such a challenged!"

I tell this story not because I have some kind of animosity against compassion. I think the motives of the men who coined the term "Spastic" - from spastikos, the Greek word for a pulling spasm - were admirable.

Similarly, the well-meaning people who thought "disabled" or "diffrently-abled" was kinder than "spastic" were not fools either. Some issues are just too sensitive and they can't remain long in the public domain before some child revolts and feels the need to sling mud. What the playground proves is the exact opposite of what George Orwell predicted in 1984.

You cannot define a concept out of existence by changing the nomenclature. Take away the vocabulary of intolerance and it will always find another way through. We need to educate young people towards genuine tolerance. It's not easy but it's far more effective than changing the terminology every few years.

Where the rest of us can learn a lesson is in being a little more tolerant towards the people who coined terms like "disabled" and "spastic" all those years ago. They were not unfeeling fools. They were just as compassionate as the prophets of political correctness who brought in "challenged". Hopefully, now that they are hearing their own euphemisms coming back to them in harsh schoolboy snarls the PC crowd will be a little kinder to those who trod this difficult path before them.


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