Wednesday, February 28, 2007

spastic, learning disability

Different pronunciations and new-to-you vocabulary can be charming. "I just love your accent!" people say, or "I love how the English/Americans say [insert word here--but not wanker, please]." Dialect wannabes pick up on these things and incorporate them into the linguistic identity that they try to project. But different meanings are another matter--they sneak up on you. Different meanings can get you into trouble.

Tiger Woods discovered this when he called himself a spaz on live UK radio/television after playing badly at the Masters last April. (See Language Log's discussion from back then.) To an American ear, that's a word for a (AmE) klutz. To a British ear, it's one of the most taboo insults, on a par with retard as one of the worst playground taunts. The difference is that BrE speakers see the connection between spaz and a specific disability, cerebral palsy. When I first moved here and donated to the charity SCOPE, its literature still said 'formerly the Spastic Society'. The name was changed in 1994, and you can read about it here. Until that point, I had never heard spastic as a synonym for 'having cerebral palsy' or 'person with cerebral palsy'--which is not to say that they were never used in the US in that way, but that it wasn't a use of the word that people of my generation were likely to come across. I had heard it as a description of some of the symptoms of CP (e.g. spastic muscles), so when I saw the title The Spastic Society, I could guess what the society was about. Still, it immediately struck me as a fairly crude and insensitive description of a disability, even though I still wasn't associating spaz with the disability. But like Tiger Woods, I heard horrified, sharp intakes of breath when I first unwittingly used it in the UK to describe my own behavio(u)r.

As Liz Ditz points out, learning disabled is another disability-related term that could cause transatlantic offen{c/s}e. It's a term that I used often as a (AmE) professor* at an American university, since it's the term that's used to collectively refer to things like dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attentional deficits. In other words, it's used for people with normal IQs who have specific problems with some aspect of learning. But in the UK, learning disability is equivalent to what is now in the US called developmental disability--and what has been called mental retardation (though this is found by many--especially in the UK--to be offensive now). Dyslexia and other normal-IQ conditions come under the umbrella of specific learning difficulty. The thing that keeps me confused about not calling dyslexia a learning disability is that it's covered by the UK Disability Discrimination Act. So, it's a disability that's not a disability. When trying to speak about such things at teaching-related meetings, I remember not to say learning disability, but can rarely remember difficulty, so I usually end up saying useless things like we need to keep in mind the students with learning....issues. (Doesn't every student have a learning issue?)

Another big term in British schooling is special educational needs, or SEN, which is the blanket term for any learning or behavio(u)ral problem that requires special consideration at school, and is used in contexts like SEN classrooms. One also hears/sees special needs education. I asked one of my bestest friends, the Ginger Nut about this. GN has been studying for a teaching certificate in the US while (working full-time and) raising a child who has an autistic spectrum disorder--so she's much more in touch with the terminology in American schools than I am. She confirms that SEN isn't the term of choice in AmE, but that "We might say, Special needs, and the official phrase that I think is comparable is Special education and related services - that's the phrasing in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)." Incidentally, I was recently told by a UK teacher that one has to avoid referring to anything as special in the classroom these days because of the association with learning/developmental disabilities. It may be the same in the US, where I first (about 12 years ago) heard the taunt You're so special, you should be in special education (or, the Special Olympics).

To see fuller lists of terminology (and perhaps do your own comparison), you can find a glossary of BrE terminology at the Department for Education and of AmE terminology at the UCLA/Wallis Foundation website. A term from the latter that GN had mentioned was emotional disturbance (ED), whereas the BrE equivalent seems to be EBD: emotional and behavioural difficulties. We tend not to get these terms at the university level, and instead talk about such problems (including depression and schizophrenia) as mental health problems or mental illness.

*Yes, there are professors at BrE institutions too, but most British universities the term only applies to the equivalent of AmE full professor, and I wasn't one of those. Hence, the '(AmE)' marking. Someday I'll do an entry on that(And I now have.)


jangari said...

Worry not.

In time, all these terms will go through a natural euphemism-taboo cycle of lexical change. Special will pertain only to the implied meaning behind special needs while learning difficulty will be used to patronise the unintelligentsia.

One the other side of the equation, words like retard, spastic and (for the British) spaz will lose all connection to their pathological basis and will be used only as very mild insults, much like idiot, which, if the cline continues, may just evolve into a proper name by then.

David said...

I think you'll find that 'special needs' has become 'additional requirements', just as 'student' has become 'learner'. Sheesh. Someone save us from inoffensive rhetoric.

Jangari, why you bring US politics (idiot, unintelligentsia) into this is a bit of a mystery. But I can see why it might be a subconscious response to the topic.

Janet said...

"Spaz" was a term we used liberally when I was in my teenaged years in the Midwest in the 60's. It really wasn't even an insult at all...just a term used as an alternative to "klutz", as you wrote in your piece. I don't think I have used "spaz" for years now, but I will be especially cautious about doing so here in the UK.


Ginger Yellow said...

"Special" is definitely an innuendo for British people my generation and below, and probably even for a generation or half a generation above. If somebody said "You're special", you'd take it as an insult (quite possibly an affectionate one, however) unless there was some reason to believe otherwise.

Jack said...

I've encountered the use of "special" as an insult - but in my experience you have to say it in a certain way for it to be taken as an insult or friendly jab. It's hard to describe online.

I do recall, when I was in high school, learning a variation on the "Toys R Us" jingle in which one sang "I don't wanna grow up, I'm a special ed kid. My mommy dropped me on my head and look what it did..."

Chiri said...

Another example would be 'Paki' for Pakistani. In the UK it is a racist term for South Asians, whether or not they're from Pakistan. It's considered very offensive indeed.

In the US and Canada, it is a simple abbreviation of the word 'Pakistani', with no negative connotations. I remember the palpable embarrassment of a BBC news presenter when a Canadian UN official he was interviewing repeatedly used the term 'Paki' while talking about the Pakistani UN peacekeepers in Somalia in the early/mid 1990s.

ally said...

Re students becoming learners: I was only the other day involved in a conversation about how students seem to have become customers round here. Ugh.

bstirling said...

In my part of Canada, Paki certainly is a racist term for a person from South Asia and is not considered acceptable by most people.

Special is often used as an insult, but you have to say it in a sneering, condescending tone. There's also "short-bus special," which comes from the way that disabled children are often bussed to school separately on a smaller bus.

On an interesting note, educational funding in my area groups all students with distinctive educational needs together, specifically those with disabilities and those students in the gifted and talented programs. So a special needs student, according to the government categories, may be the next Einstein.

dearieme said...

"Mental defective" was used when I was young. At University, a chump would be dismissed as a "spastic hoof". In Edinburgh 30 years ago, a "Paki" was a corner shop.

jangari said...

Jangari, why you bring US politics (idiot, unintelligentsia) into this is a bit of a mystery.

If you associate these words with American politics, then, that's very interesting in itself. I meant them as nothing more than a general observation. Having said that, the sentence with 'unintelligentsia', I agree, could have been better worded altogether. There certainly isn't anything parochial in it.

AllieTheKiwi said...

In NZ, we had the 'Crippled Children's Society', but it soon became very unPC to call someone 'crippled'. Hence we now have CCS - which most people know stands for... the Crippled Children's Society. Why not go for a new name altogether??

One thing I came across whilst living in Australia, and visiting the UK, was 'fitting'. I found it shocking, much like you discovered in the UK when you used 'spaz'. In NZ one would talk about someone 'having a seizure', and I've not heard anyone use 'having a fit' in conjunction with epilepsy for quite some years. We do, however, still talk aobut someone having a fit about something, when meaning they are very angry. ("My mother had a fit at me last night for getting in half an hour late!")

Spastic down here had the same cerebal palsy connotations, and is most certainly a bad thing to say as it is in the UK.

Hazel said...

Part of the reason that mental handicap (as it used to be known) is now called learning disability, is to stop it being confused with mental illness. I believe this move was led by Mencap.

Dave said...

In fairness, Spastic was never a dreadful taboo except in certain trendy or "politically correct" circles. People here in England still call others a spaz or a Joey if they fumble something or trip over, and in the majority of cases, with no ill feeling to those with cerebral palsy.

And SCOPE wasn't formerly known as "The Spastic Society" (which suggests 'Stastic' as an adjective), but The Spastics' Society (with Spastics as a noun).

Blade Runner said...

A recent Scott Adams newsletter (he is the writer of the Dilbert cartoons), in the section recording overheard idiotic remarks , refers to a mother haranguing a school football (NFL) coach who had placed her son in the special team - she reckoned he deserved to be on the "normal" team .

Grace said...

I agree with bstirling. In my part of the US, 'Paki' would be considered very offensive.

Also, it may be worth noting that 'spaz' can also be used as a verb. In the phrase 'spaz out' it means to get very angry or upset. "My mom spazzed out when she found I got a C on the exam."

Diane said...

I had never heard of ED until just now. The current term used in educational circles in the States is EBD, which stands for Emotional and Behavior Disorders.