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Worst Words Vote

by Ouch Team

In 2003, we asked Ouch readers to vote for the disability-related words that they find most offensive.
A panel of disabled people created our diverse top ten list, which was then put to the public vote. It featured words that could be considered very deliberately offensive, as well as everyday words that grate just as badly.

We asked voters to identify whether they were disabled, not disabled or rather not say. We also asked for your comments as you voted.

The results are now in, giving a snapshot of how the general public view these words here and now in 2003.

The final result

2053 votes were cast in total. Of these, 73.9% were from non-disabled people. 18.3% were from disabled people and 7.6% said they would 'rather not say'. Interestingly, these percentages seem to reflect the population fairly well - we're often told that 18% of the UK is disabled.

  1. Retard - 19.6% (404 votes)

  2. Spastic - 18% (373 votes)

  3. Window-licker - 17%(350 votes)

  4. Mong - 13.4%(276 votes)

  5. Special - 10.2% (210 votes)

  6. Brave - 7.9% (163 votes)

  7. Cripple - 5.5% (113 votes)

  8. Handicapped - 2.5% (52 votes)

  9. Wheelchair-bound - 2% (42 votes)

[+] Click here to take a look at how the choice of top ten words differed between disabled and non-disabled people.


  1. Spastic - 15.1%(57 votes)

  2. Retard - 14.3% (54 votes)

  3. Brave - 14% (53 votes)

  4. Special - 13.5% (51 votes)

  5. Cripple - 10.8% (41 votes)

  6. Handicapped - 7.9% (30 votes)

  7. Wheelchair-bound - 6.3% (24 votes)

  8. Mong - 5.8% (22 votes)

  9. Psycho - 5.5% (21 votes)

  10. Window-licker - 5.3% (20 votes)

Not Disabled

  1. Retard - 21.5% (328 votes)

  2. Window-licker - 19.6% (298 votes)

  3. Spastic - 19.2% (292 votes)

  4. Mong - 15.7% (240 votes)

  5. Special - 8.8% (135 votes)

  6. Brave - 6.2% (95 votes)

  7. Cripple - 4.3% (65 votes)

  8. Psycho - 2% (31 votes)

  9. Handicapped - 1.1% (17 votes)

  10. Wheelchair-bound - 0.9% (14 votes)


We asked a few famous disability names to tell us what they thought of the result:

Peter White, BBC Disability Affairs Correspondent

Peter White
"It's interesting the extent to which some of the big differences are shown in the words lower down the vote - the fact that 'Window-licker', which was third in the poll, was actually the least offensive amongst disabled people. Looking at the results, it seems that disabled people are more forgiving if there's an element of humour to the word - whereas non-disabled people aren't. I'm always very sceptical when I get letters from people who aren't disabled telling me that they've been offended by a particular word - because where does the offence come from if they haven't been told what to be offended by? It must be a learned response."

Bert Massie, Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission

Bert Massie
"I've been called a few words in my time, some of them on the list. Sometimes they come from ignorance, other times they're prompted by pure prejudice. Sometimes they hurt, sometimes they make me laugh. Words can help the way we view the human race. Maybe Ouch should poll readers on the best way we should describe ourselves as disabled people. But whatever words we as disabled people choose to use, we need to be careful that we don't use words or phrases so anodyne that we hide the reality of living in a disabling society. Our words must convey a strong message."

Julie Fernandez, disabled actress

Julie Fernandez
"When I think of 'retard', I think of Blazing Saddles! Some words I find offensive, others I use myself in an ironic way amongst friends; I feel I can because I am disabled. We just don't need to be using the word 'cripple' any more, like we don't use words like 'negro' or 'kaffer' against black people - these words are only ever used in an offensive way. When I do interviews with the press I do so with the proviso that they do not use words like 'brave' or 'heroic' because they undermine me and I'm simply not either of those things. I'm just geting on and trying to work."

Mat Fraser, disabled actor

Mat Fraser
"The differences in reactions between disabled and non-disabled are less than I would have thought, and it's good to see that non disabled people are taking on board how offensive the words 'special' and 'brave' are, as well as the others ... we must be becoming more aware as a society generally. But I did find it interesting that non-disabled people find 'retard' the most offensive, as it's not really much used as a word in this country. For the record, my top three would be 'spastic', 'mong' and 'brave'. Sorry I can't give you a linguistic essay, but I'm a bit of a flid ..."

Dr Tom Shakespeare

Tom Shakespeare
"When I was growing up, my mum used to say that 'sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you'. Well, I think she was wrong. However confident we are as disabled people, when other people insult us or patronise us it can hurt like hell. 'spastic' and 'retard' are obvious insults, no debate about it. But I'm glad to see that non-disabled people are beginning to understand why less offensive words such as 'special', 'brave' and 'wheelchair-bound' are so irritating to many disabled people. Personally, I don't get called many of the words on this list, but every day I get called 'midget', 'shortarse', 'Mekon', and lots of similar terms. I think we should have disability equality classes as part of the National Curriculum."

Ouch's 'Disability Bitch'

Disability Bitch
"All my retarded spastic window-licking wheelchair-bound crippled chums had their vocabulary widened by this survey. Thanks, Ouch!"


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