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> > > Victoria Wright discusses language
line drawing of writer

Line drawing of Victoria Wright

Victoria Wright featured on Radio 4's Word of Mouth with Francesca Martinez and Colin Barnes. Here she discusses her relationship with the language used by and about disabled people, and asks questions about the importance of definitions.

The person who coined the phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ should be hung up by their pants, (or, indeed, their knickers – I don’t want to make gender assumptions) smacked on the arse with a very sharp stick, pummelled with stones and then have a group of disabled people hurl a torrent of foul mouthed abuse at them.

Because if there’s one phrase that haunts us from the minute we’re first ‘called names’ as children and burst into tears, it’s that one.

I was recently interviewed on Radio 4’s Word of Mouth about the language used about and by disabled people. I think us ‘disabled people’ get called lots of words.

crippen cartoon showing a man on crutches and a wheelchair user

Crippen's Differently-Abled cartoon

My husband calls me ‘Miss Chinny’ usually after I’ve bossed him around (as in ‘Yes Miss Chinny!’). Friends and family call me Vicky. Colleagues and acquaintances call me Victoria (‘cos it’s more posh, innit).

My brother calls me ‘Stinky’ but I’m going to draw a discrete veil over that one. And I once had a journalist describe my chin as ‘gargantuan’ which made me sound like the title of a 1950s horror movie (‘Attack of the gargantuan chinned woman!’ – hmm, actually I quite like the sound of that).

I am happy to call myself a ‘funny-looking woman’ and a ‘disabled woman’. I was once asked why I call myself ‘disabled’ as there’s “nothing I can’t do”. But for those of us lucky enough to know about the medical and social model of disability, being ‘disabled’ is not about not being able to do things. It’s about being ‘disabled’ by society through prejudice and discrimination - all of which I have experienced.

Words are important. They can label us, categorise us and disempower us. I don’t remember the first time I was told I had Cherubism but I do remember the first time a boy called me ‘fat chin’ in the school playground. It wasn’t just the unexpected cruelty of his words that hurt me, but the realisation that I was different and it probably wouldn’t be the last time I would hear such words.

But words can also empower us. We each have the power to choose which words we want to use about ourselves and we can reclaim words that ‘non-disabled people’ use against us.

crippen cartoon showing a group of wheelchair-users being addressed by a boy

Crippen's 'Oh look it's the disabled' cartoon

The first time I truly felt empowered about my face was when I read the book ‘Framed: Interrogating disability in the media’ as a student and learnt that people who looked different LIKE ME! could be artists, filmmakers, actors, academics and activists – words not usually associated with ‘disabled people’.

In preparing for my Radio 4 interview, I looked at how my thesaurus defines the word ‘disabled’: handicapped, incapacitated, debilitated, infirm, out of action, crippled lame, paralysed, immobilised and bedridden. Euphemisms are ‘physically challenged’ and ‘differently-abled’. Able-bodied is defined as: healthy, fit, in good health, robust, strong, sturdy, vigorous, hardy, hale and hearty, athletic, muscular, strapping, burly, brawny and lusty.

So what do you think? Would you amend these definitions? Or do you agree with the thesaurus that disabled people just stay in bed doing sod all and certainly not being ‘lusty’? Over to you folks…