Nikki Frittmann is a notetaker and reader/writer for students with disabilities at AUT University. She has Spina Bifida and lives in Auckland with her husband and two cats. Every second month she shares her musings with DPSN.
I’ve always been fascinated by words. I was very keen on reading when I was a kid, and whenever I found a word I liked, I’d make the most of it, like good food – rolling it around on my tongue, enjoying the sounds the letters made. I was good at English and yes, I am one of those annoying people who can’t walk past a shop sign which has a word spelt incorrectly without going inside and telling someone about the mistake (I’ve also been tricked into buying a lot of things from those shops in my time).
There was a song that was popular at the time (I’m showing my age here), which said, “It’s only words…” I could never understand it as, to me, words were so important. Not numbers, however. Get me in a Maths competition with you and I know who would win (not me!).
Certain words surrounded me in those days and I kept hearing them – “handicapped”, “surgery”, “physiotherapy” and, most of all, “Spina Bifida”. These words weren’t scary to me, they just became part of my world. Like the class I attended every day at school, which was full of disabled children, or the taxi that used to pick us up to take us there, while other kids walked to their schools.
I’m not sure when people started being more aware of their speech around disability. “Person First” language has become important lately. “Person with a disability” is now often more acceptable than “disabled person”. I think there’s nothing wrong with this polite form of address, or person-first language itself, for that matter.
“Handicapped” is out, at least locally, though I notice a lot of people in America use it on a daily basis in the disability pages I belong to on Facebook. But I distinctly remember in the ’70’s having to write, “Physically Handicapped Unit” on letters at Primary School, such as thank-you letters to whomever had treated our class to the latest outing. It was not only okay to use that phrase, it was expected of me.
Today, those words on a letterhead would no doubt surprise most people. “Handicapped” – very un-P.C. “Unit” – as if we are all one group, untouchable, in the middle of this school community. Aren’t we all meant to mix together these days, disabled and non-disabled children alike?
Although I will respect anyone’s wishes as to their preferred name or description, I’ve reached a stage in life now where I don’t care too much what people call me. I’ve had a girlfriend once tell me to “move over, ya cripple,” and although she was disabled herself, I honestly don’t think I would have minded too much if someone I knew from the able-bodied community had said it in humour.
In any case, as long as we avoid the obvious words nobody uses today, even in fun – “spastic’, “retarded” and “lame” (unless that last word refers to my dress-sense, in which case you’d probably be right), we’re okay. Ignore me, patronise me, or under-estimate my intelligence, however, and we have a sticking point – no matter what you call me while you’re doing it. And after all, isn’t that just how anyone would react to such treatment, disabled or not?
What do you think?