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When A "Joke" Is The Most Offensive Thing You Can Say Without Realising It (Or - We Need A Discussion About The Use Of The Language Of Disability And Able-Bodied People!)
Warning - You may find some of the language used in this blog post offensive (or - at the very least - non Politically Correct).  My only intention is to give you a flavour of what I had to put up with in the late 1970's/1980's when I was at school.  Times have changed but there is still a "language barrier" between those people who society sees as "normal, fully functioning human beings" and those who society sees as "Disabled".

Ir really comes to something when I wish I could swap lives with one specific Police Officer so they could understand my exact level of offence at a "joke" they made at someone else's (incidentally another Police Officer) expense.  In fact, I wanted to arrest them for a "Disability Hate Crime" offence I was so upset by what they said (or - more to the point - one word they used).

What did they say that caused me so much upset??? Well, they talked about breaking someone out of a special room - but the word "special" was should have had quotation marks around it.  The missing quotation marks were the actual problem.

You see - I understand the word special to have a pleasant definition when the quotation marks are absent - a special occassion can be a wedding, a birthday, or any other kind of festive happening, that special someone could be used to refer to your partner, etc,

When the quotation marks are added to that word I understand it to have extremely unpleasant and - to be perfectly honest - dangerous meanings.

"Special" to me usually comes with two more words following it - "Educational" and "Needs".  In my experience that means "there is obviously something seriously wrong here but we either are not qualified enough to sort it out or we cannot be bothered to find out exactly what's wrong so we will just let her fend for herself".  Failing that "let's just tell her she is lazy and could try harder - that will solve the problem".

And people wonder why I now find it extremely difficult to trust those people who claim to have my best interests at heart???  Some words are sharper than knives and do a lot more long-lasting damage!!!

Admittedly, when I was at Primary School it was before the Racism Awareness of today's world came in.  I went to an all white school - although I remember one boy in my class who looked like he could have come from the Mediterranean. area.  There were certainly no black or Asian people there.  This meant that - when we were playing games like "Tig" (or "Tag") we used what would now be seen as a racially offensive word whenever we wanted a timeout. (So racially offensive I am not going to even type it.)

That was done in the innocence of "youth" I suppose.

However, some of the words which were applied to me were intended to hurt - and they did.  In fact, one of the words was used with specific gestures - just in case I was too thick to understand what it meant.  The fact that it wasn't strictly applicable to me was beside the point - it was used for people who are not "normal" - I was seen as not being "normal" so the other (usually older - but some in my class and the years below) children could use it to me.

Nowadays the word "Spastic" is not used in " UK Polite Society" to refer to a person but a condition where the muscles spasm.  Even the charity formerly known as the "Spastic Society" changed their name to "Scope".  When I was at Primary School the word "Spastic" appeared to refer to anybody with any kind of disability whatsoever - whether or not a wheelchair was involved in their disability.  Yes - you guessed it - even severe shortsightedness.  I am not even going to describe the accompanying gestures (just imagine someone with severe Cerebal Palsy and you get the idea).

Compared to that the term "Four-eyes" was quite mild (and it had a grain of truth in it - my glasses at Primary School were extremely thick and they did sometimes look like I literally had four eyes).

Ironically, the last time I was called "four-eyes" - or - to be more precise - a "four-eyed bitch" was when I was in Leicester City Centre, minding my own business, a few years ago.  The stranger who decided to verbally abuse me was a stranger who obviously had some sort of Mental Health disturbance.

It really saddens me that - even though we are aware that there are certain words and phrases we are not allowed to use to describe disabilities and disabled people - people seem to throw "Disabled" terms around like confetti, not caring where they land.

I suppose it is a little like the "Misappropriation of Racial Culture" that the black and ethnic minorities keep accussing the White people of - however, instead of hairstyles and headscarves, etc, the words can do much more damage - both to the people they are aimed at and the people they "belong to".

Autism, Mental Health Issues (rainging from OCD to needing to be Sectioned), Deafness, Blindness - anything is open to misappropriation by the "able-bodied" when it suits them.

Come on - how many times have you asked someone if they are deaf when they haven't heard something which you could hear???  Or - told someone "you must be blind if you cannot see that"??? Or a million and one other phrases which are more appropriate when applied to someone with those specific disabilities or issues???

By the way - the next time someone uses the slogan from the Specsavers advert - "should have gone to Specsavers" - they will be politely informed that Specsavers would not deal with my prescription as it is way too strong for their lenses!!!

One of my friends has gone to the extreme of rephrasing some of the things he would say to other people in order not to cause me any offence - for example, instead of saying "Do you see what I mean?" he will say "Do you understand my point of view?".  To be perfectly honest I don't mind either version.

What I do have a problem with is people deciding that - just because I make jokes about my sight - for example - "A member of the "Bat Brigade (Blind As A)" - they are allowed to do the same.  I will allow close friends and family to make jokes about it because they know where I draw the line between "funny - ha ha" and "funny - offensive" - strangers are advised to avoid all mention of my sight unless I mention it first.  I would not make jokes about any aspect of a stranger which I find odd without taking their lead or asking them first.

Disability seems to be something we cannot discuss except either in a jokey way (usually when it is totally inappropriate) or in funereal tones - as though it is the worst thing that can happen to someone.

I have news for you - it is a serious topic but it is not usually the worst thing which can happen to someone (I think you will find that accolade goes to dying).  The worst thing about disability is not what you can and cannot do for yourself - it is how some people react to your disability and make you feel about it.

Let's face it - being born disabled is bad enough in some people's eyes but going from being "normal able-bodied" to being disabled in some way can be devastating for the person concerned - mainly due to the fact that the world is designed for "normal able-bodied" people.

Until we can have a proper adult conversation about what it means to be "disabled" - and the language we use when talking about disability - we will still be stuck in our two separate worlds with that flipping "glass wall" between us separating us when the best way forward would be to have a mixed conversation.

Only by talking to each other instead of at each other will we ever be able to break the "glass wall" and live in harmony through mutual education.


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