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Dave Hingsburger | 11:31 UK time, Monday, 2 July 2007

Please pay attention, there WILL be a quiz at the end of this story.

When I came out of the hospital after having fought off a dangerous infection and landed in a wheelchair, I was due to make an annual lecture tour of the UK. I had four solid weeks of lecturing booked and had been excited about making the trip. This would be the first time I'd ever attempted a for week lecture tour. I'd done three week tours of the US and Canada several times, but four weeks - that was new. I had been worried about maintaining the energy throughout the four weeks before I got sick. Now, it seemed overwhelming. So, I called the host agency that put everything together, told them I wanted to come, but also told them that I might have to shorten some days and give my self extra breaks. They were really good about it.

The doctors had told me that I would feel my energy return fairly quickly. They had figured out why I kept getting these infections and had put together a packet of medications that I would continue taking for the rest of my life. That along with the medication for the infection made med time like meal time. But as I travelled, rather than get more and more tired, I felt more and more energy. It was working. I was amazed.

At the end of the third week we were staying the weekend in Carlyle, just south of the Scottish border, and it was a big weekend for me. I knew I was going to make the four weeks. I was feeling stronger than I had in a long time. I had finished the meds for the infection - which meant I could drink again. I hadn't had a beer in a very, very long time. So we checked into a hotel that wasn't much by appointments but was incredible with location. It was right across the street from a great looking pub.

The bags were dropped in the room, we hit the street heading for the bar. Wonder of wonders, it was accessible. There was soccer playing on every television screen and the bar was packed with young folk between 20 and 40 all in the mood to party on a Friday night. We were in the mood too. I knocked beer back with a rhythm you could dance to. Quickly, I was feeling the alcohol. Quickly I figured how great it was to get drunk in a wheelchair, you don't fall, you don't stagger. Too, I got to use the loo that was on the main floor and everyone else had to climb stairs, "Take that!"

A few hours later, I looked at Joe and said that I thought I'd best be getting back to the room. Joe pulled his face of the table and agreed. We headed back to the bar. I had forgotten the cobblestone streets and realized quickly that I should have visited the 'little boys room' before leaving. But the hotel was across the street, no big deal. We got in and headed towards the elevator. I was wheeling myself and Joe was walking with a decided list. As I got to the tiny elevator I saw an elderly woman watching me. She had that 'oh, dear, look at the delightful disabled lad' look that I had yet to recognize in people's faces.

I wheeled past her and got into the elevator. Even though I was driving drunk, I did a good job of getting the chair into a space that was quite small. She leaned in and said, "Everything alright chicken?"

Chicken. CHICKEN. She called me "Chicken."

I was dumbstruck and just sat there staring at her as the elevator door closed. Joe took the stairs, there was no way he'd fit in the elevator with me. It wasn't the fastest lift I'd ever been in and Joe was leaning against the wall on the second floor waiting for me. I pulled off the elevator and he said, "What a nice old woman."

"Nice? Nice?" I spat at him, "She called me chicken."

There I was a man. A man. An adult boy. A grown up. I was out on the town on a friday night. I was doing adult things, getting drunk in a pub, smoking cigarettes. I was back. I was off the medications and on with my adult life and she called me "Chicken."

In a single word it seemed as if she had taken my adulthood from me. As if she had taken my manhood away from me. As if she was addressing a little child, not a giant, grown up, drunken, man.

It was the first time I really felt the emasculation of the wheelchair. The first time I realized that I was perceived differently. Really differently. Up until then I was just grateful to be alive, grateful to be moving around. And now, I was being made childish, childlike, by the word - chicken.

So, a few weeks later I told this story in a lecture. Using it as an example of how disability changes perception. I told the story to illustrate the point that it's hard to negotiate adult rights for a people seen to be less, different, dependant, childlike. This is true for all with disabilities but especially those with intellectual disabilities. The reaction to the story came in the lecture feedback forms.

People were outraged at my interpretation of the events of that night in Carlyle. They said that she was just being nice. That the term 'chicken' was obviously a term of affection. That I was being hositle. Whoa! Really? So, I've been a bit shy of the story ever since.

Here's the quiz ...

Now, a guest blogger at here at Ouch, I thought I'd ask the disability community and other readers. What say you? Was she being patronizing? Was she diminishing me in some way? Or, am I being overly sensitive? Overly critical? I'd really like to know your opinion. Let me know what you think.

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  • 1.
  • At 12:56 PM on 02 Jul 2007, Chris Page wrote:

"Chicken" in that context is just a term of affection, common to the North East of England. It's no reflection on you at all, just a cultural misunderstanding.

Hey, Cris, thanks for the response. I 'get' that it's a term of affection, but would she have used it on me as a drunken standing up and walking man? That's my issue I guess. Dave

  • 3.
  • At 02:58 PM on 02 Jul 2007, Wilma wrote:

Yeah, Dave, I tend to agree.

A couple of years ago in the British Big Brother - I think you have it in the US but it's nowhere near as popular - a contestant called Michelle struck up an unlikely relationship with a contestant called Stu. She called him 'chicken' all the time.

A term of affection, yeah, but a very patronising one. She was ridiculed for doing it and he was ridiculed for letting it happen...

My gran used to call me 'duckie', but that's my gran not a complete stranger... I guess i think terms like that are acceptable between two adults but only as part of intimate relationships, not between strangers.

A bloke on a fruit stall near where I work always calls me 'sweetheart' and not in a good way (he doesn't do it to other women). I got into a habit of saying, "Thanks, darling" when he handed me my change. He was startled the first time. The second time he laughed. I didn't need to do it a third time.

As a woman, I get called love, darling, pet, sweetheart etc. so often whether I am using the wheelchair or not that I don't read too much into it. And frankly, I'd be more inclined to use a term of affection towards a drunken man rather than a sober one; partly out of a desire to be gentle, but partly in order to overstate the absence of hostility.

Also, in fairness, if she was elderly then you would have been just a lad to her. She may have had kids your age.

Tone of voice is usually the big clue. Oh and if they pat you on the head at the same time - that's generally a storng indicator of a patronising attitude. ;-)

I think it's a fine line whether that was a cultural thing or a patronising thing. She probably just meant it as an affectionate thing but as a disabled person it's all too easy to assume it's patronising - I find that I do the same all the time.

  • 6.
  • At 07:40 PM on 02 Jul 2007, Nicola wrote:

they have a thing for 'duck' here,i'd never heard it before.

i don't take that offensively, partly because i'm not a grown man but mostly because it seems to be universal for women, especially young ones. but its all about context, its not about the word so much as who says it, when they say it, how they say it and who they say it to.

if i saw anyone call a grown man 'duck' i'd think it was odd, yeah.

i got called Feather the other day, its all about birds in this country, dave.

It could have been either, really. Old people often refer to younger folk by endearing names.It could also have been the wheelchair. I dunno.

The fact that she didn't refer to Joe as 'chicken' perhaps is a little telling. I would have felt patronised. In fact, I would have found it infuriating because I imagine she didn't intend it to be patronising at all. Probably being chatty with someone she felt comfortable with - and you, rather than a drunk standing man, perhaps represented that.

It could equally be because once you reach a certain age, you are legally entitled to refer to everyone else by cloyingly sweet, slightly demeaning names. I believe you're allowed to choose three names you can use for this purpose.

Oh, and you're also allowed to reach into prams and pushchairs and grab handfuls of baby cheeks simply without warning the parents (even if you don't know them).

At least I'm presuming that's what the law is, because that's what always seems to happen when I'm out with my kids...

  • 10.
  • At 08:16 AM on 04 Jul 2007, phil pilgrim wrote:

Different areas have different accepted forms of address in normal life.South Yorkshire it's "flower","M'duck" in Nottingham,"hinny"in North east,"but"or"butty" South Wales."marrer" in North east.I often use"darling"--my wife uses it to everyone and I picked it up.As a Yorkshireman my term is "luv"
I was in a business lunch with a London lady,she walked out the second time I addressed her as luv,mortally offended.
In a chair permanently now I developed an exaggerated sense of humour to deal with patronising coments,as well as a biting tongue,however I do try to keep a sense of perspective.Life is too short.

  • 11.
  • At 05:22 PM on 04 Jul 2007, Jo wrote:

I've found this post and it's replys really really interesting. I am very often called lots of different names, told different things by different people and also nealry always address someone with some term of enderament. Poppet, Pickle, Sweet heart, chuck, chicken, chick, duck, pettle .. the list goes on.
By my uni mates, who are almost 100% AB, think me harsh. Closer member of the group often tell me off for feeling or saying these things. They can get quite angry. However, with my disabled mates they couldnt be further from that. All of them feel fiered up on my behalf, they suggest letter writing or stopping to say something.
Depending on who I'm with and what's been said greatly changes my reaction.

I wouldnt have been pissed at being called chicken as I'm guilty of that one my self .. however the ability of the person using the name might have changed that .. AB or Crip .. angry or swollowed? ..

Good luck working that one out ;-)

  • 12.
  • At 05:47 PM on 05 Jul 2007, Bethan wrote:

I'm non-disabled and really surpised that other non-disableds have had such a strong reaction to your anecdote. I agree that these endearments are demeaning, doesn't matter whether they're meant to be or not.

Maybe people get defensive because these terms come out completely from the subconcious and sometimes and very frequently used by some people.

I have been referred to as chicken, duck, luv occasionally in the past because I'm young and female I reckon. Coming from the south I'm not used to it and have kind of done a mental double take. I don't really mind but in a very small way feel like I'm being talked down to for being female/young.

Men probably don't understand because they're thinking about their gran, and women because they've had it done to them. Doesn't make it right.

  • 13.
  • At 05:53 PM on 05 Jul 2007, Rachel le Nobel wrote:

I have visited the UK on numerous occasions over the years - it took me a while to get used to having everybody, from store clerks to cab drivers to customs officials call me "Luv". Initially I felt startled by the familiarity of such a term. It seemed rather diminishing - kind of like when I visit my mother and within minutes feel relegated to age 9 status. (dammit, how does she DO that???)
Eventually I came to enjoy it as a cultural expression of friendliness and warmth. "Luv" makes me feel far more welcome & safe than "Ma'am" (younger, too...ha ha)
I think you misread this one, Dave. I think the lady in question was expressing friendly concern for a man "in his cups" - had you staggered in on foot, bouncing off the walls, her reaction likely would have been the same.

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