I’ve written previously about the language that should be used to address disability, most importantly saying the word disabled instead of one of its cringe-inducing euphemisms, but also about the general dislike of person-first language. What I haven’t addressed so directly in the past is what language not to use around disabled people, or frankly, at all.
Cripple is a somewhat controversial term, and I certainly wouldn’t be too amused to be called one by someone able-bodied. However, much like some slurs which have been applied to other marginalised groups, it has been partially reclaimed by disabled people as a symbol of defiance. I have used it to describe myself among friends, and many of my disabled peers have done the same, but I can also respect that for some the term simply carries too much venom and trauma for them to ever be comfortable using it.
Spas, derived from the medical term spastic, was also a common insult thrown around the playground at school. Since I rarely get muscle spasms beyond the norm I don’t use this term to describe myself, but equally I know some disabled people who don’t mind it’s use among friends.
Terms like idiot and stupid are also unpopular due to their links to ableism, and I’m making an effort not to use them at all, although with them being so embedded in everyday language and culture, it’s very easy to slip up.
There is one word, however, which I really don’t like hearing, even among disabled friends; the r-word. That word was used to justify keeping disabled people locked away in institutions for much of history, and then to segregate people in education. The false association between disability and a lack of intelligence has hampered the education, careers, and social lives of disabled people for millennia, and is a cornerstone of modern-day ableism. It’s insulting and degrading beyond any of the other slurs used against disabled people.
Now, it’s at this point that I’m usually interrupted by someone explaining that the r-word is actually a scientific term for the inverse of acceleration, but most actual scientists now use the word deceleration, which is the linguistic opposite of the word acceleration and therefore makes far more sense. Having once had an alternative meaning does not automatically make the use of a word OK in a modern-day setting; language evolves.
It should be said that there are some disabled people who are cool with the use of the r-word in the way I might say “cripple”, and while I personally disagree and don’t like it being used at all (unlike the r-word, cripple is merely a remark on the state of my body and not my intelligence), I will tolerate it’s use by a disabled person to describe themselves. I will not, however, tolerate anything beyond that, particularly not from someone able-bodied.
There are people that believe equality means everyone gets to say what they want, meaning it’s OK for able-bodied people to use the R-word. Perhaps, if true equality was achieved and actualised a case could potentially be made (of which I would remain dubious, it should be said), but we are a long way off from eradicating ableism. Why waste time deciding what is acceptable behaviour in an imaginary future scenario when there is work to be done now?
Simply put, it is not difficult to refrain from the use of the R-word. If you really want to insult somebody that badly, don’t resort to bigotry, just make it personal instead.