As a writer, I know that language is a funny thing, especially when it comes to what people find offensive. You can write what you believe to be a totally inoffensive article but because you pick just one wrong word, a word that in your opinion accurately describes a situation, and people will be up in arms. Recently I wrote a piece about a young man who had finally got a job at Asda after 950 rejections. It was based on a story in the Daily Mirror where he was described as a Cerebral Palsy ‘sufferer’ and this is also the term I used in my article. I sent it to a friend who advised me to change the phrase because it was thought of as patronising by certain disabled people. I altered it because I didn’t want to offend but for me personally I don’t have a problem with being called a Cerebral Palsy sufferer because that’s what I feel I am. I have Cerebral Palsy and throughout my life it has caused me a lot of mental and physical suffering.
I understand that there are a lot of people with disabilities who don’t feel like they suffer because of their impairment. They feel words like this make them appear the victim when they’re not and therefore promotes pity. While I can see where their coming from, I struggle to get myself in the mindset where the limitations of my physical condition don’t make me feel at a disadvantage and this causes me personal anguish. I want to do things for myself and I can’t because my impairment stops me and I find that very hard to live with. I have muscle cramps and postural problems that makes me suffer from physical pain. I suffer from Cerebral Palsy therefore I am a Cerebral Palsy sufferer. That doesn’t make me a victim or someone to be pitied but I am not afraid to state that there are things about my life that I do not like and can’t accept. I call myself a sufferer not because I think my life is of lesser value but because I am aware of my reality.
I sometimes feel a lot of disabled people are afraid to admit there is something wrong with them because by doing so they feel like society will devalue them. We don’t want other people to have an issue or feel sad about our disabilities so we feel like we can’t feel bad about them ourselves. We have to ‘set an example’ to prove we’re ‘just like everyone else’. But for me, and I suspect a lot of other people, we don’t feel like everyone else. The social model of disability is great in some ways, it states that society should give everyone the same opportunities and adaptations should be made to include people with impairments. But even if by some magic force it came totally into being and we viewed disabled people the same as everyone else, would it really change the way some disabled people feel about themselves? Even if the right assistance was provided, problem free, at the end of the day, some people need that assistance while others wouldn’t. I can do anything with help but I want to be able not to need help. No amount of social change will change that feeling within me. It’s my desire, my longing, society didn’t put it there.
Yes, the word ‘sufferer’ is problematic for many people but by fighting to omit it completely are we in danger of alienating those disabled people who do feel like they’re suffering because of C.P or whatever other disability? By saying ‘I am disabled, but it doesn’t cause me suffering,’ are we putting judgement and pressure on those who aren’t as strong when it comes to dealing with the challenges they face? Just because a proportion of the disabled populous believe that being a ‘sufferer’ makes them a victim in others eyes, does that give them the right to discredit the feelings and experiences of those who feel differently and want their personal difficulties to be recognised this way? Is it really fair to say ‘I don’t feel I suffer from my disability so you can’t either. You’re letting the side down.’ Isn’t that just making a character judgement on another people’s experience of the world?
Words alter their affect and meaning all the time. What was once okay is in later times sometimes considered offensive. Controversial words can also sometimes be reclaimed by groups that they were once used to insult. Very few white people today would feel okay with using the ‘N’ word and yet certain black comics and rap stars use it frequently. Do they have to answer to an older generation for whom it held a different, more oppressive meaning or does their skin colour veto the offence it might cause others? They say it’s wrong to label other people but do others have the right to tell us what we label ourselves.
Those who claim that language such as ‘sufferer’ promotes pity need to remember that sympathy for someone you view as less fortunate isn’t in itself a bad thing. It is a basic component of civilised human society. Yes the reaction may be misguided at times but the intent is pure. For every self- assured disabled person who doesn’t want to be allowed to the front of the queue because they find it insulting there will be another, like me, who will see it as an act of kindness. Does objecting to small gestures and misused words really further the cause of equality or does it make us seem petty and militant?
Maybe the papers and I were wrong to describe the person in the story as a ‘Cerebral Palsy sufferer’ but it isn’t because the phrase is wrong. It’s because we can’t be sure of the challenge and experiences of this individuals life and how he views his impairment. He might not consider himself a sufferer but then again he might. And if it is the latter, as it is for me, does anyone truly have have the right to tell him otherwise because it differs from the way others see themselves?