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More than words: The changing language of disability

AlexW_ScopeAlexW_Scope Scope Team Posts: 210 Scope community team
edited July 2017 in Guest blogs
This guest post is by Alex White, Scope’s Information Content Manager.

This month is UK Disability History Month, which takes as its theme ‘disability and language’. At Scope, we know a thing or two about this, having changed our name 22 years ago from ‘The Spastics Society’. Scope HQ with banner which says Scope - formerly The Spastics SocietyWhile a simple name change might not seem important at first, the story and the attitudes that led to it can say a lot.

I joined Scope the Monday after it changed its name. It was 1994 and I’d been out of work for two years on invalidity benefit and then incapacity benefit. From leading a team of eight journalists to being labelled ‘invalid’ and ‘incapable’ by the benefits system was hard to take so I know about labels…

Changing names and times

"I work for The Spastics Society,” was not a phrase I ever had to utter, thankfully, as I joined the Monday after we relaunched as Scope. After two years of consultation and preparation, everyone in the office was understandably knackered and it was very quiet in the office that morning. The abiding memory was relief that we had finally changed our old-fashioned, medical name but there was also some negative press reaction saying we were ‘wasting’ charitable funds on changing our well-known brand and that it would affect our fundraising.

But this wasn’t some designer-led whim or logo tweak. Dropping ‘spastic’ from our name was about listening to the disabled people who we worked with (and those who wouldn’t have anything to do with us!) It was about removing a word from the lexicon of the playground bully and giving more scope to disabled people to lead the lives they choose.

Language and attitudes

Broken up signs which appear to say The Spastics Society
It would be easy to say that language is just words, but in truth it shapes, and reveals, people’s attitudes. Thankfully, the ‘spastic’ jokes of my childhood have been largely consigned to the dustbin of history.

Today’s young people, such as the pupils who attend our Role Models programme for schools have a much more positive attitude towards disabled people and diversity in general. Progress is not always as fast as we would like, but attitudes have improved and the world is a better place for disabled people – you only need to look at history to be reminded of this…

Can you think of any other disability-related words that have changed recently or further back in history? Do you have any stories relating to how language has made you feel about your disability? Let us know in the comments below.
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Replies

  • AlexAlex Scope Team Posts: 1,325 Scope community team
    Thanks Alex, great post!

    It's interesting to think about some of the words and phrases that used to be acceptable. Scope certainly isn't the only charity to have a cringe-worthy old name. For example we had the "Association of Parents of Backward Children" (now Mencap) and my Grandad grew up in a home run by the "Waifs and Strays' Society" (now the Children's Society).

    It makes me wonder if there are words that we use today that will be equally unacceptable in the future!

  • Sam_ScopeSam_Scope Member Posts: 7,732 Disability Gamechanger
    This is really interesting, I have just come back from India and it made me realise just how much better we are in the UK at using correct terms.

    We saw a few 'handicapped' and 'cripple' signs as well as a support group for 'retarded children'.

    I found it really shocking and it made me think about just how important the language of disability is.
    Scope
    Senior online community officer
  • AgnesNutterAgnesNutter Member Posts: 3 Listener
    What do people think about the "reclaiming" of words that were once common, then classed as offensive? I know this has happened with other minority groups who have reclaimed "hate" words related to race and sexuality. I have friends with disabilities who use the word "cripple" to describe themselves, sometimes in a fun way but often in an angry way when relating bad treatment from others. I am undecided on my right to comment: I'm not disabled myself but my 2 year old daughter is and until and unless she decided to us these words about herself I would be livid for someone to use them about her. Thoughts? 
    Mum of a unicorn-tamer A (age 5) and a 2 yr old wunderkind with CP
  • lauon90lauon90 Member Posts: 10 Connected
    Alex said:
    Thanks Alex, great post!

    It's interesting to think about some of the words and phrases that used to be acceptable. Scope certainly isn't the only charity to have a cringe-worthy old name. For example we had the "Association of Parents of Backward Children" (now Mencap) and my Grandad grew up in a home run by the "Waifs and Strays' Society" (now the Children's Society).

    It makes me wonder if there are words that we use today that will be equally unacceptable in the future!

    Agreed- great post. Particularly pertinent as I work on the Scope Role Models programme and we talk in the workshops openly about negative language and attitudes. It's interesting to hear the students admit that they don't know the history of words like retard or spastic, yet they use them as insults.

    Interesting to talk about past names for organisations- the National Autistic Society used to be called The Society For Psychotic Children! 
  • Rainbow_wheelz16Rainbow_wheelz16 Member Posts: 30 Community champion
    edited December 2016
    I'm in my 30's and I have been exposed to the term spastic when I was younger and sadly more recently. I have heard people use this word presently and also the word retard, when they have walked past me in the street. They seem to think  I cannot hear or that I will not react.  The term 'spastic' is actually a medical term, meaning tight muscles. Unfortunately, it then became used as an insult to people with disabilities, as did the term retard, for people with learning disabilities. I   have  found that people seem to have a level of disregard and disrespect for people with disabilities... as if we are somehow below everyone else.  I  either get patronised and treated like a child, or insulted,. It makes  me very sad. People also seem to assume that it's ok to use this language, if they are also not saying it directly to you. I've had people make reference to Forrest Gump, in front of me, as a 'joke' or people who have said 'oh, it not so bad being in a wheelchair.' As they assumed i do literally nothing but sit there.'  We are probably all guilty of not saying what we should and you can sometimes trip over yourself.  But, please remember that behind every disability, there is a person! Not just a label, but a person. If you took a  Words   are not just words. They shape how you perceive a person, even if you are not even aware of it, words do have a very powerful impact.  It can affect how someone might see themselves and they can feel frightened of integrating with the rest of society for fear of rejection, abuse and non acceptance. It can be a lonely world, if you feel you don't fit it and you are excluded from the things that others take for granted. If we don't  challenge it, then things will not progress.  Some people with disabilities simply continue it by using these terms themselves. This does not help.  I   am pleased that scope are doing the role models programme, but it does need to be targeted at primary age as well. Younger children learn prejudice.... so if they can be educated about disability at a young age hopefully it will have some impact. It needs to be part of PHSE or citizenship lessons. I  would like to get involved in the role models programme. I  applied ,  but didn't hear back
  • Sam_ScopeSam_Scope Member Posts: 7,732 Disability Gamechanger
    Absolutely @Rainbow_wheelz16 Great post.

    Scope
    Senior online community officer
  • lauon90lauon90 Member Posts: 10 Connected
    I'm in my 30's and I have been exposed to the term spastic when I was younger and sadly more recently. I have heard people use this word presently and also the word retard, when they have walked past me in the street. They seem to think  I cannot hear or that I will not react.  The term 'spastic' is actually a medical term, meaning tight muscles. Unfortunately, it then became used as an insult to people with disabilities, as did the term retard, for people with learning disabilities. I   have  found that people seem to have a level of disregard and disrespect for people with disabilities... as if we are somehow below everyone else.  I  either get patronised and treated like a child, or insulted,. It makes  me very sad. People also seem to assume that it's ok to use this language, if they are also not saying it directly to you. I've had people make reference to Forrest Gump, in front of me, as a 'joke' or people who have said 'oh, it not so bad being in a wheelchair.' As they assumed i do literally nothing but sit there.'  We are probably all guilty of not saying what we should and you can sometimes trip over yourself.  But, please remember that behind every disability, there is a person! Not just a label, but a person. If you took a  Words   are not just words. They shape how you perceive a person, even if you are not even aware of it, words do have a very powerful impact.  It can affect how someone might see themselves and they can feel frightened of integrating with the rest of society for fear of rejection, abuse and non acceptance. It can be a lonely world, if you feel you don't fit it and you are excluded from the things that others take for granted. If we don't  challenge it, then things will not progress.  Some people with disabilities simply continue it by using these terms themselves. This does not help.  I   am pleased that scope are doing the role models programme, but it does need to be targeted at primary age as well. Younger children learn prejudice.... so if they can be educated about disability at a young age hopefully it will have some impact. It needs to be part of PHSE or citizenship lessons. I  would like to get involved in the role models programme. I  applied ,  but didn't hear back
    Great post thank you. I'm so sorry that you haven't heard back from the team- would you be able to e-mail me directly at [email protected] and I'll see what happened?
  • Sam_ScopeSam_Scope Member Posts: 7,732 Disability Gamechanger
    Scope
    Senior online community officer
  • rachelclrachelcl Member Posts: 34 Connected
    I think the last time I was called a "spastic" was in the late 1990s. I was trying to figure out when exactly Scope changed its name, as I recall that the NME's Ruby Trax album - with The Wonder Stuff's fabulous version of Coz I Luv You - was when Scope still had its old name.
  • AlexW_ScopeAlexW_Scope Scope Team Posts: 210 Scope community team
    We changed our name in 1994.

    Ruby Trax (which also features Vic Reeves singing Vienna) was 2 years earlier.
  • rachelclrachelcl Member Posts: 34 Connected
    edited December 2016
    Yes, 'cos it was to commemorate various 40th anniversaries (of the NME, of the singles chart etc.) It also features Ned's Atomic Dustbin - who I had posters of all over my bedroom wall at the time 'cos I had a crush on one of them - doing I've Never Been To Me and The Wedding Present's version of Cumberland Gap.

    I've heard of some disabled people being called "scope" or "scopey" but I've never been called that - at least not to my face or in my earshot. I do, however get called a "tramp", a "dirty stink" and - even though I'm teetotal - "drunk". There are so many people in Britain who think disability insults were eradicated when the Paralympics were held in London.
  • CathyInSouthAfricaCathyInSouthAfrica Member Posts: 16 Connected
    This is such an interesting thread, thanks
    Some words get tied up with the emotions you feel when people use them.  I had forgotten how powerless the word spastic made me feel, as it was commonly used of me rather than to me.  I was always in need of special provision. I never dreamed I would live and work independently when I was growing up. I don't think I was even aware of the changing language, and may have been a bit critical of it being too PC. 
    Reading this thread makes me realize how I have benefited from the more inclusive language. I have a lot to be grateful for, the wisdom and kindness of the people who fought disdain and mockery to make the language respect our dignity.
    Thank you Scope
    My brother used to affectionately call me Crab, because I didn't walk in a straight line. He was always fun. The headmaster called me Puddle Duck.  Some names were not said so kindly, but I enjoy remembering these 2.
  • izaiza Member Posts: 467 Pioneering
    I am not quite confident is my comments is relevant here but when people use term disability they think about physical and mental disability. However there is third type of disability. I call it hidden disability (rare medical conditions ) which any way is causing a limitation to your life to what you could do before you start suffer from it. No one is talking about it in any of European countries at all. 

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