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A Word In Your Ear ...

We’re often told communication is everything. We’re told to choose words and gestures carefully, and to be mindful of what we say. There are some words to refer to disabilities and health issues that were used in years gone by that most people would agree are derogatory and would be pleased to see the back of. But there are some words with attached concepts which can cause deep offence, and perhaps reveal a more hidden prejudice around disability.

Back in the 90s, when I first became visually impaired, I tripped over a stranger in a dimly lit pub. That person rounded on me with a mouthful of abuse, so a male friend of mine leapt in to bat for me and shouted, “Don’t you talk to my crippled friend like that !”

My defender was a genuinely nice guy, caring and loyal, but I was taken aback by his use of the "C" word.

And not least to describe me.

Of all the things I’d thought in the previous weeks since losing a great deal of vision overnight - along with my job - me being “crippled” had never occurred to me. The word had always been used as an insult in my peer group at school, but I'd never heard it used by an adult at that stage in any connotation. Was this how one of my dearest friends now viewed me ? One could argue a word is just a word, but some words are almost always used with a certain negative weight behind them, so hearing that word seemingly used in another context can seem shocking.

When I mentioned this incident, and my feeling of unease about it, to another close friend she said that people say things in the heat of the moment that they perhaps wouldn’t naturally say if they were given more time to choose their words.

Do they ? Or does even having that word in one’s vocabulary (even back then) indicate and undercurrent of unconscious prejudice that I didn’t want to address in someone I held in such affection ? Or was the problem with me - in how I viewed the actual word, blinding me (pun intended) to the intention behind it ?

Sometimes in an effort not to cause offence folks may also be put on the spot. A more amusing example of a use of language concerning disability that I heard a few years back was from a nightclub bouncer. When confronted with a party containing three sight impaired people who had been split up in the queue to get in and were upset about it he took some of us aside and said, exasperated, “Right ! Which of you is hard of sight ?”

I imagine he was trying not to use the word "blind" (which some sighted people seem afraid to use), and mangled something else instead. He was bigger than me so despite wanting to have a little amicable chuckle at his clumsy combination of sensory loss phrases, I didn’t. Which is probably just as well.

The language used around disability is inherently important. We can perhaps forgive individuals the odd slip up if their intentions are sound. We can excuse people if the problematic words aren't being shouted at us with anger or hatred in the street. But what about when large companies with an army of publicists and media specialists get it deeply wrong ?

Recently a local wheelchair user, Kezza Reece, was angered by the wording on signage for accessible parking bays at the Boots Riverside branch in Norwich.

Instead of "disabled parking" (which perhaps could have questionable connotations, depending on one's personal opinion), or the potentially problematic non-inclusive "wheelchair parking" someone - or someones - at Boots decided the phrase called for was "Less Able Parking."

Kezza's reaction was immediate.

"I looked up and there was this massive sign telling me I was less able," she said.

"I honestly felt sucker-punched.

"The rage was all-consuming. To be called less than by Boots, of all businesses - they're a medical and health provider.

"It makes it less forgivable. They should know better."

Going back to my friend in the pub ...

He'd either consciously or unconsciously decided I was somehow less than I was before my vision loss. He'd been around me enough to know that I was quite able to defend myself both verbally and physically against any random ratbag (we were both DJs, and had worked together). But instead of saying "Don't you talk to my friend like that !" his automatic reaction was to bring my disability into the equation.

I was now needing protection in his opinion.

He believed that disability = needs protecting. Disability = less able. Disability = less.

The idea that people with disabilities are "less" is one we're constantly having to push back against. We are not less, but our quality of life can certainly be made less by lack of environmental provision and poor cultural or individual attitudes.

The social model of disability says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. The lack of an accessible entrance to a building disables a wheelchair user from getting in. Lack of accessible correspondence from a medical professional disables a person with sight issues from being able to manage their healthcare. No provision of a BSL interpreter at a school disables a Deaf person from being able to communicate regarding their child's education. These are issues with society, not the individual. Society is disabling us in these instances.

After Kezza took to LinkedIn and Twitter to bring focus to the situation Boots swiftly apologised and changed the signage within 24 hours. The new signs read "Accessible Parking." Which is a phrase countless companies have already been using on their signs for some time. So how did the retail giant get it so wrong at the outset ? Did they not envisage that using the word "less" to describe a section of society would cause a backlash ?

Kezza hasn't yet received a response to her questions as to how and why the wording was given the go ahead in the first place. But it's obvious that Boots don't employ enough people with disabilities in enough key roles.

So what's the take away from this ? It would be easy to be trite and say "Be kind, think of others" and get all "words can hurt". But what's the real issue ?

The issue is not words, but attitude and mindset. Having a mindset that views disability negatively makes for negative word choices. For the most part things have moved on and my friend from the pub would not use that word to describe someone with a disability now. Attitudes and provisions are changing in many key areas, slowly, but surely, but plainly not fast enough. Social media gives many previously unheard disabled voices a platform to tell it like it is. We can educate and inform more people, and reach not only individuals but larger entities too. Multinational companies and service providers with large social media presences as well as real world premises are bound by law in many cases to have disability and equality policies. The bigger the entity the more resources they will have to get those policies right. So this makes the original choice of wording by Boots on their signage all the more incredible. Of course they're not the only company to have ever dropped a massive clanger in this way by any means. But having this come from a business providing health and medical care it is unpleasantly ironic to know in some areas very basic attitudes to disability still need to change.

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