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.

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.