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Mik Scarlet

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Mik is the disability scene's first media celebrity, best known for being a leather-clad, spiky-haired children's TV presenter before it was all the rage, and for his role as the action man reporter of the BBC's Disability Programmes Unit.

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"What did you just call me?"

Which one did you pick as the English language's Worst Word to describe us disabled types, in the contest run on this lovely website?

I must admit that from the shortlist I find the term Retard the most offensive. Not because it has ever been levelled at me, but just because it is so derogatory, unless it's aimed at the kind of people who use it as a term to describe any one with a learning disability. Included among the ten shortlisted words are, in my opinion, some of the most misunderstood words used to describe the disabled community.

Firstly, let me start with Window-licker ... huh? What the hell is a window-licker? I have never heard the term before, and to me in conjures up a middle-class advertising executive licking their cocaine mirror, not some one who is disabled.

Spastic was once a medical term, but as it slowly turned into a playground insult - along with queer or gay - we all stopped using it in favour of CP. (Many years ago I went on tour with an old band, called Freak UK, wearing a t-shirt with the logo 'SPAZ GOD' emblazoned across the front).
The word Psycho just makes me think of very drunk blokes with flat-top hairstyles all doing the war dance to bands like the Cramps back in the 80s. Ah, Psychobillies ... there was a fashion movement! Cripple is all very Charles Dickens - poor Tiny Tim! - and Mong is another medical term made into an insult by school kids and the under-educated. The media favourite, Wheelchair-bound, while it annoys me because even the most severe tetraplegic can get out of the chair, always makes me picture some kinky wheelie handcuffed to his chair while doing naughty things (I wonder why?).

Handicapped is a word that we as disabled people insist comes from 'cap n hand', even though it actually originates from horse racing and golf, in that we are handicapped in comparison to the able-bodied. OK, it's society that handicaps us, but it is actually a correct use of the word. That just leaves us Special and Brave.

It seems that many of you who voted disliked Brave more than Mong, which is beyond me. I think I have gone on record as saying that we, as a group, are brave. To carve a way though life in a world that constantly treats us as second-class citizens takes bravery, and if I think of the number of disabled people I know who cheerily go through countless operations and laugh while in constant pain and discomfort, then I personally think brave is a very good word to describe what is at the core of disability. Not brave for running a marathon, or any other of the media's excuses for using the word, but in its true meaning. I know that many able-bodied people out there in Perfect World could never take a day in our shoes, let alone a lifetime.

Special is another word like brave. I am special, oh so special ... but not in a 'special needs' kind of way. I am special, but so is everyone - even if your mother is the only one to think so.

However, none of these words really get to me. In the thirty-seven years I have been on this planet, fighting to be accepted in an able-bodied world, nearly all of the ten shortlisted words have been used to describe me. But there are many more that I feel do much more harm.

Unemployable was one that was used back when I was 16 and just in my chair. After it had been used I was expected to never work in a real job, and had to decide between a life sorting nuts and bolts at Remploy (another bad word) or a life claiming disability benefits. Over 80% of disabled people never get the chance to go to work.

Fire Hazard is another description that has been the bain of my life. It has been used to bar my entrance to public places throughout the UK, and is a favourite of bouncers and security staff who see disabled people as too much effort.

Tragic is regularly used to describe anyone with a disability, and it is so wrong and damaging that I'm amazed it didn't make into the shortlist, especially when the very strange Window-licker did. Another word in the same vein is Pathetic, which is equally wrong but is often used by the media, together with tragic, to describe disabled and/or sick kiddies.

Two other candidates are Lonely and Sexless. So many disabled people are condemned to a life of loneliness and lovelessness, mainly because we are still viewed by the majority of society as being sexless. This sexless myth still continues, even though the media always pulls out the old 'sex and disability' programme whenever they feel the need to do a disability season.

One of the worst words is Integration. Governments, employers and managers bandy it around, yet we see and experience little of it in the real world. It is one of those words used by the powerful able-bodied to allow them to disguise discrimination. Curable is used more and more by the medical profession when discussing disability, and finding a cure is now viewed by a growing number of society as the answer to integration. Make us perfect and then they don't need to change anything.
And then there's Perfect. Another crap word. The whole world seems to have gone mad for Perfect, as people spend way too much time, money and effort on trying to make themselves resemble a picture of perfection that is not only impossible and ugly, but is open to changes in fashion. Never forget that Marilyn Monroe was an American size 16, which I'm sure everyone would call fat nowadays.

The last word that would be on my shortlist is actually a set of initials - D.R.C. The Disability Rights Commission is the worst word of all, as it is a body that is meant to give us equal rights but totally lacks the teeth of the other equal rights bodies. How can we be equal if we are not entitled to the same representation in law?

After saying all that, the worst part of the Worst Word poll is that we are still worrying about what to call ourselves. Since I became aware of the Disability Rights Movement back in the early 1990s, we have fought to get ourselves called 'Special Needs', 'Differently Abled', 'People with Disabilities', and 'Disabled People', to name just a few. The disabled movement has spent more time on finding a label that is acceptable to all than it has actually trying to get things changed.

What we need to do now is what black people have done - claim all the words that have ever been used to describe us as our own. Whether it's Cripple, Spaz, Mong, Nutter, Flid, Drooly, Spacker, Spazmo, Fruitloop, Psycho, Messy Eater or even Window-licker, we should now take the words and turn them from insults into empowered words we use to describe ourselves. Once we do this, it will take away the power of the words to label and hurt. I mean who calls black people 'niggers' in today's society, apart from black people themselves? No one, because black people have made a word that once tripped so easily off the tongues of Klan members into a term used by rappers and black youths in Harlem.

Come on, say it loud - I'm a CRIP and I'm proud!

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