Dominated by ambulist metaphors
Victoria ponders how English - a language she loves - is institutionally 'disablist'
While at junior school, I was fortunate enough to have a remarkable teacher called Mrs Brown (not her real name) who was passionate about English literature.
It was Mrs Brown who first introduced me to Classics by giving me a children’s story about the fall of Troy. (Little did she realise that nine years later I would attempt at university to read the original story of Troy in Ancient Greek as I struggled to translate Homer’s Iliad).
More than once Mrs Brown would declare to us pupils: "The greatest gift an English person possesses is the English language." It’s a sentiment I share. There’s nothing I enjoy more than devouring a spellbinding novel, discovering a beautiful poem or seeing a thought-provoking play. But it should also be recognised that the English language presents tricky problems for disabled people and especially wheelchair users like myself.
Take a sentence like “I walked to the shops”. It’s factually inaccurate for me to say “I walked” – the last time I walked anywhere was 24 years ago – but which verb do I use instead?
I could say “I went to the shops” but “went” is a rather vague term which could encompass using a car, a bicycle or even roller skates.
If I used a battery-powered wheelchair I could perhaps describe myself as “driving” to the shops but my wheelchair is a manual one.
In any case, “drive” is misleading as it’s a verb usually associated with cars. If I propelled myself, I could say “I pushed/pushed myself to the shops” but it’s a term unfamiliar to most of the population and it’s not relevant for me because I need an assistant to push me.
So there doesn’t seem to be a suitable wheelchair-friendly alternative to the verb “to walk” for me to use. As a result, I always refer to “walking” to places, even though I feel uncomfortable doing so.
It’s a succinct, easily understood and everyday piece of terminology. I just wish there were a more appropriate verb for someone in my situation so I didn’t constantly have to be economical with the truth.
The English language is full of expressions which are based on an ability to walk. Young adults are encouraged by their parents to leave home and “stand on their own two feet”.
Successful business people are those who stay “one step ahead” of their competitors. Politicians “stand” for elections. If we feel we are being treated unfairly, we are told to “stand up for yourself”. When learning a new skill, we are advised to take it “one step at a time”. If someone is undermining our dignity or self-esteem, we do our best to “hold our head up high”.
Certain job titles are rather amusing to wheelchair users. Broadcasting companies, for example, often employ people as “runners” – has there ever been a wheelchair-using runner, I wonder? When I was growing up, I had an ambition to become a stand-up comedian. For some reason, at the age of 10, that struck me as peculiarly amusing.
Bearing in mind how walking-orientated the English language is, it’s not surprising that history is littered with famous quotations that convey an able-bodied perspective on the world.
At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther set in motion the Reformation by insisting before the assembled VIPs of the Catholic Church that he was compelled to obey what he saw as God’s will: “Here I stand. I can do no other”.
His spiritual descendant Martin Luther King once preached: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.” A few years later, his fellow countryman Neil Armstrong commented that landing a man on the moon was: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
Pop music is also awash with able-bodied language. Just think how many songs have words like walk, stand and run in their titles.
Around the same time that I decided to become a stand-up comedian, I also resolved that, if I were ever a guest on Desert Island Discs (which is about as likely as me landing on the moon), I would choose eight records with walk, stand or run in their titles, just to see if anyone noticed.
Consequently my desert island would resound to the strains of I’m Still Standing (Elton John), Walking Back to Happiness (Helen Shapiro), Keep on Running (Spencer Davis Group), Walk Like an Egyptian (The Bangles), Walking in the Air (Aled Jones), Stand and Deliver (Adam Ant), You’ll Never Walk Alone (Gerry and the Pacemakers) and Running up that Hill (Kate Bush).
Of course, I cannot overlook the Val Doonican song Walk Tall which contains the classic able-bodied lyrics: “Son, be a proud man and hold your head up high/Walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the eye.”
Lois Keith, the disabled poet, cleverly highlights how the English language is dominated by “ambulist metaphors” in her uplifting poem Tomorrow I’m Going to Rewrite the English Language (published in Mustn’t Grumble: Writing by Disabled Women, edited by Lois Keith, The Women’s Press, 1994).
Reading her poem, one could easily come to the conclusion that the English language is "institutionally disablist".
Unfortunately, this is an inevitable product of how society functions. Just as history is written by the victors, so language evolves to reflect the concerns and interests of the powerful. Throughout human existence, power has rested with able-bodied people and the effects of this are evident in the words people say today.
Obviously, even if disabled people wanted to, it would be impossible to change the prevalence of general able-bodied language. But now disabled people finally have a voice in society, we can and do exert a subtle influence over language. When I’m very busy, for example, you might hear me complain that “I’m rushed off my wheels”. That’s a fairly common expression among wheelchair-users these days.
It’s important to remember that language which incorporates the experience of disabled people can have just as much impact as able-bodied language. In his most celebrated speech, the great Martin Luther King declared: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
It's a message that’s inclusive in more ways than one.