Monday, April 20, 2009


Recently I posted a status on my Facebook Profile that went as follows:

That I object to the use of the terms 'spastic', 'cretin', 'retard' etc. that have been used to insult and humiliate people with disability. We, as society, by and large have managed to eradicate the use of racial slurs, now let's unite against slurs against people with disability. Even using these words to insult an able-bodied person is not acceptable.

I was quite amazed by the responses of people, and from the comments I realised that they didn't quite understand what it was that I found so offensive. I was grateful for the two 'likes' I got, I did feel that I should explore this topic a bit more deeply, and thrash this issue properly.

I think it would be reasonable to state here that I grew up in a society that had racism at its very core, and although I personally was not subjected to hearing racist terms used all the time, I was aware of many of these terms, as any child growing up in that environment. Terms that one utters at your peril in today's society, and rightly such language is no longer tolerated. In writing this blog, in the hope of bringing to the fore another set of terms that I think should be viewed with equal disdain and disapproval.

Yes this group of words are those above that are connected in some way to people with disabilities. I will admit that some of these terms already are not so common any more. I'm also aware that many of the people who use these terms may not be aware of the disability connotation and thus may not be aware just how offensive the term is. I invite any person who knows of a person who routinely or even occasionally uses the words I'm speaking about here, to visit this blog and learn about what it is they are actually saying.

People who don't know me well, and certainly those who are just looking in here by chance or because my thing popped up on a search engine, will not realise that I have a physical impairment (we used to just say 'a disability' but apparently is not correct terminology any more). I was born without a properly functioning thyroid gland – a condition known as congenital hypothyroidism, literally that means that my thyroid gland was under-performing. Left untreated, or even if the condition is picked up too late, brain damage occurs and the result is a person who has stunted growth, and whose natural intellectual and physical development is severely affected. Such a person cannot expect a long life-span, and would be reliant on carers throughout his or her life. I was fortunate, no I'd say I was blessed that in my case the condition was diagnosed, for what at the time, was regarded as very early – 2 months – and so the brain damage that had occurred up to that stage, was halted and was minimal in comparison to what it might have been. The small amount of brain damage that did occur did not heal, but it did not get worse. Incidentally, today, this condition is routinely checked when a baby is born, in most western countries, anyway.

This blog is not about me but about this language and why I object to it. Before the term hypothyroidism was in vogue, children were referred to as cretins. I have always thought that the term derived in some way from "The inhabitants of Crete" – but a quick search online and I see that there are other ideas about this. The Wikipedia article suggests one possible origin is from a certain Alpine dialect of French and the way they pronounce the word Ch├ętien – meaning Christian. Cretinism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopediawhatever the origin of the term, it was formerly used to describe people with congenital hypothyroidism – it is now used as an insult, and is generally taken to mean someone with such a low intelligence as to make them ineducable. It is for this reason that I find the word to be very insulting and unacceptable and on behalf of those who have the misfortune of having learning difficulties, I will speak out and object to this kind of speech. I saw a website that I will not advertise here where people were defining the words I have listed above, and more besides, but in the most hurtful and unnecessary way. Using words like cretin, only serve to deepen the prejudice against people with disabilities.

A term, that I admit I have not heard used for a long time, but I have since discovered by looking at the aforementioned website, is in use today, along with certain derivatives is spastic. The derivatives are spaccy, and spazz, to name a couple. I have just learnt that 'a spaccy spot' is a disabled parking bay. Today we refer to people with Cerebral Palsy. Cerebal Palsy (CP) is as a result of brain damage that occurs shortly before, during or shortly after birth. It affects different people differently and it effects are determined by the location of the damage in the brain and the extent of that damage. It typically manifests with physical impairments, and people with CP may be unable to walk properly, may have difficulty grasping things and may have their speech affected. The person may have learning difficulties, but this is not necessarily the case and should not be assumed to be the case. An organisation called SCOPE represents people with Cerebral Palsy in the United Kingdom and if you wish to find out more about people with Cerebral Palsy and truly engage with the reality that is Cerebral Palsy and not merely adopt the stereotypic ideas, go to their website. Homepage : SCOPE. Interestingly, SCOPE was previously known as the Spastic Society. For obvious reasons, this name was changed. When I was a child attending a school for the handicapped (as they were at that time known), there were a number of children in attendance at that school who were referred to as 'spastic' who had Cerebral Palsy. Today, with inclusive education, most children with Cerebral Palsy are educated in the mainstream, though there are still schools that cater specifically for children with CP too.

"Tropic Thunder" was a movie that was released last year that brought the next term to the fore: retard. At the time, when I heard that it contained this word and it was used in the way it was, without seeming to make it clear that calling someone a retard was not acceptable I was one of many who was calling for a boycott. Of course, I was a voice calling in the wilderness. However, I would like to say again here and now that calling a person 'retarded' or a 'retard' is hugely insulting and unkind, and as I am advocating here, part of hate speech against people with disabilities. The term comes from a shortening of the term retarded development and refers to a person whose mental age is significantly behind their chronological age. You may meet a man of 40 whose mental age is about 10. They are very innocent, and very susceptible to suggestion, so, can justifiably be referred to as a vulnerable adult. It is not something to be laughed at or made fun of, and so this is why the term retard is no laughing matter. If you are so unfortunate as not to know anyone with learning difficulties as such people are known in the UK, do yourself a favour, and I am not being sarcastic, try to get to know one. Just be polite, and kind and you will find that this person will be open and accepting of you. NB: Make sure you have the permission of the person responsible for their care first.

I have already written a lot and I have not nearly finished venting my spleen on this matter, but that will simply have to wait for another day and another post. I am going to publish this and I reiterate: PLEASE POST YOUR COMMENTS. I approve (or delete, where necessary) each comment. Please let me know of other terms that you think could constitute hate speech against people with disabilities.

5 comments:

Kern said...

You're right. As guilty as I am, I have to remember make a more conscious effort of avoiding these derogatory terms whenever I feel them about to slip out.

Nice post.

Plumbline said...

Until now, I never thought there was anything wrong with the term 'Cretinism' nor 'Spasm'...now, this is giving me a thought...I just want to add, however, that it is possible a good number of those using such slurs as being unaware, unlike most racism slurs where the user more often, uses it deliberately...I would say, then, that it all came from our schools...I learnt the term 'Cretinism' from my Integrated Science class in Junior High and it was mentioned in the same breath as 'Gigantism' and 'Dwarfism'. I would never, however, use the term 'Retard' for anyone...and I would put the first two into my consciousness...

Ps: You feel their pain more because it dawns on you from time to time that it could have been you...I actually envy you for that...I need some more sensitivity myself.

John Blog said...

Thanks Kern, your candid response is most refreshing. Rather than try and deny it - you held your hand up - you are by no means unique.

Plumbline - you have a point about people's ignorance in this regard. The truth is that the only antidote to ignorance is education and so I write this kind of blog.

Incidently the words are cretin and spastic.

This is why I say in my blog if you hear someone using these kinds of words - invite them to have a look at this blog.

Yeran said...

I love this blog post! Couldn't have written it better myself. So I will be sharing it on my FB page. I hate it when i hear those words as insults. It makes my blood boil. And you're right, it is about educating people. So that's what I'm about to do by sharing this :-) Thank you!

John Blog said...

Thanks Yeran,

I had a brief look at your blog via the link you provided but couldn't see the reference to what I had written (admittedly I didn't look very hard) but would be grateful if you could provide me with a link - if you don't want it published put it in and note that you don't want it published - it will come up in my email but I will not publish.