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TX: 21.07.05 - The Spazz Wheelchair

PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

WHITE
Now how legitimate is it for a group who in the past have been demeaned by name calling to reclaim the offensive language and try to make it their own? The latest example of this is the American company which has brought out a wheelchair called The Spazz. In the past, of course, that was a regular term of abuse, which strictly speaking was directed against people with cerebral palsy, but which in reality could be used to insult anybody the playground mafia decided didn't come up to their exacting standards. The wheelchair itself seems to have proved very popular but it's caused considerable problems for exhibitions, for example, such as the Mobility Roadshow, which found its responsibility to include it in its catalogue clashing with the fact that a number of people were finding its name highly offensive. In particular it seems to have upset the parents of disabled children, some older disabled people and non-disabled people. Well in a moment we'll be discussing the wider issues surrounding reclaiming language. But first the view of John Box, the wheelchair using president, of Colours in Motion, that's the company which has brought out the chair.

BOX
Many of the product names, the ideas, the way we present ourselves is enjoyed by our customer base. This emerging group of disabled people they have things to say, things to do, they're active in the community. We try to push the envelope a little bit, as we succeed in getting people to accept words like spazz, it creates opportunities for the disabled so that they're not stuck in the preconceived areas by society. I mean we have a saying over here that spazz is not the Queen's English and we're not trying to make it a standard word just like wheelchair, we want to give it a personality, we want to give it some type of impact. With all that said you have to remember it's just a sticker.

WHITE
John Box.

Well Steve Day is a stand up comedian who is deaf and sometimes explores issues of language in his stage act. We asked him to give us his personal take on the spazz controversy.

DAY
I laughed out loud when I heard they made a wheelchair called The Spazz. I laughed even more when I was told that able-bodied people were outraged by it. Oh the tender sensibilities of those who get offended on other people's behalf. Who is left to patronise them? If you can have an Asian fashion label called Paki and a rap group can be Niggers With Attitude, then what's the worry? That may be someone with cerebral palsy will take offence? The thing about The Spazz is that by all accounts it's a great product. It's a wheelchair with attitude. Who cares about the words when the product's great. Thank you very much but I'd rather have a wheelchair that is rubbish but has all its language in order, if it's all the same with you. Something that moves like a supermarket trolley but is called something nice, like Acceptance, or The Patroniser. Perhaps there are wheelchair users who don't have cerebral palsy that may get offended because their own particular condition isn't getting the gig and all the glamour. If they brought out an MS I'd have one of them, no problem, but I'm not having a Spazz, no way, they're always hogging the limelight that spazz lot.

But if The Spazz sticks a spanner in the chair wheels of the PC machine then it's not before time. You see by concentrating on the language things are expressed in we've tended to forget about the thing itself, but it's the sticks and stones that hurt, the words are just rubbing it in. If you disinfect the words it doesn't make the problem go away. And what's more by waging a pointless war against just the words we've left the field open for those who want no progress at all in improving people's lives and want to claim the whole thing's a waste of time, got up by liberal do-gooding nincompoops. And in the all encompassing phrase - it's political correctness gone mad. You see I don't care so much what people say about my deafness as long as I'm being treated right. Mind you I don't care so much what people say anyway, I normally can't hear them. If there was a suitable N word for a hearing impaired person it would worry me less than not being able to get decent NHS hearing aids. Actually there isn't an N word for the hard of hearing, I don't think. Or at least not one I've heard. Normally the worst you can get is the word deaf applied as a prefix to some other insult - deaf idiot say - for want of something broadcastable. In fact if there were a good deaf N word I'd be out there reclaiming it right now, bringing out my own range of funky urban clothing and forming a rap group - Deaf Idiots With Attitude - or something. Come to think of it we'd be good, we know all the hand gestures and everything. If a new hearing aid came out tomorrow with a deaf idiot label I think I'd give it a go, if it worked I'd have one, if it offended some liberal do-gooding nincompoop I think I'd have two!

WHITE
Steve Day.

So the argument goes - as disabled people we have the right to take offensive language back and use it as a positive. Well joining me to discuss this is wheelchair using performer and disability activist Mik Scarlett and the campaigns officer of Scope Margie Woodward and of course Scope is an organisation which deliberately changed its name from the Spastic Society to rid itself of the word's negative connotations. Margie Woodward, you first, I mean given that you did that nevertheless what's wrong with fighting back if you like in this kind of way?

WOODWARD
Well what's wrong is that the language we use underpins our attitudes and certainly for the general public of non-disabled people we in Scope are fighting against discrimination and the language is so important to put that through to the media, to put that to non-disabled people. With our campaign Time to Get Equal we are covering many campaigns in this area, to fight discrimination and disabalism - which is a new word that's come in.

WHITE
So do you therefore not accept the Steve Day - and I suspect the Mik Scarlett - argument that if you grab the - if you grab the word and make it your own you change it, you change its ability to wound?

WOODWARD
I don't think we've got to that stage in the environment yet, I think we still have to plough through with the language to make sure that people understand that disabled people are part of the community and you can't slag it off with words like labels. The manufacturer from America said - Well it's just a label - but labels stick and they have stuck for ages.

WHITE
Let me bring in Mik Scarlett. I mean however much fun it might be to grab back the language aren't the relatively powerful disabled people the last ones who should be causing offence to their less robust brethren?

SCARLETT
But do you not think that part of the problem is that - I mean I've been involved in the media and Disability Now for like nearly 15 years and in that time we have changed our name from disabled people, to people with disabilities, to people that are less able, differently able, back to people with disabilities and now we're disabled people again. In that time nothing's changed but we've had a good 10-15 years arguing over what to call ourselves.

WHITE
So you think the arguments about this are a waste of time?

SCARLETT
We spend so much time worrying about whether we're called spazz or crip or mong or whatever and no time at all pointing out to society - call me what you like, but give me an equal rights law that works, give me a job, give me an access to the building - and I don't care.

WHITE
Margie, haven't the arguments about language, as Steve Day was suggesting, haven't they done some harm allowing the issues to be swamped by arguments about language?

WOODWARD
No, because I still maintain that the language we select and use, especially in things like the media Peter and the way that people are reported at, still has an undermining effect on people's attitudes.

SCARLETT
I don't disagree with that, I don't think that to me a word like spazz and a word like brave and courageous or tragic, no one would ever think of going - Well here we are, welcome to the news and tonight our cheerful story is some spazzy git tried to climb up a mountain. But they always say - Wasn't he brave or courageous. Whereas really those people are the people we don't want to see in the news aren't they.

WOODWARD
That is exactly the point - we don't want language that over-emphasise. As you say we just want to be people. But having a wheelchair that is manufactured with a label called spazz seems to me to be going backwards, not forwards.

SCARLETT
But the thing is Colours is one of the few companies that are actually made and run by a disabled person, so it's not like it's able-bodied people making money off the back of us.

WHITE
But of course most of the people who see it aren't going to know that are they, they are just going to see a wheelchair ...

SCARLETT
What's it got to do with anyone that's able-bodied anyway? Mind your own business.

WHITE
But aren't they the people who use the language that you're taking exception to? It's quite a subtle argument in a way isn't it?

SCARLETT
Sure, but surely it's the same thing as if I go out and call someone a racist name or a sexist name, being a white male I'm completely - that's not right but if I go out and call my fellow disabled person a crip or something that's fine because we understand that that's - most of my friends call each other crips.

WOODWARD
Wait a minute, we understand that language as adults with different impairments but what we try to get away with is children coming into this who have got a future, who do want to have their place in society without getting relabelled in the playground with a wheelchair that says spazzo on. Now very quickly non-disabled children I think from past experience will pick up on this ...

SCARLETT
But they'll call him that anyway, they call them that already.

WHITE
Can we just get a final comment from Mik about this point of this might work very well for people who are really robust and kids who are really robust but for people who are perhaps more vulnerable it may simply add fuel to the people who want to ...

SCARLETT
As all I say is that if we start bringing up our kids so that they reclaim words like that, so that if a kid calls him a spazz and they're in a wheelchair called a spazz then you just turn round and go - Yeah and what?

WHITE
Margie Woodward, a final comment on that?

WOODWARD
Final comment, I have to uphold that the whole language underpins people's attitudes and if we still reinforce at this present time negative words, especially for children, especially in the playground, especially for wheelchairs and equipment that manufacturers are exploiting on the back of disabled people enforcing discrimination and disability issues.

WHITE
Margie Woodward of Scope and Mik Scarlett, thank you both very much. It would be very interesting to know what other people think about that.

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