Opinion: Christine Tongue – Why ‘cripple’ isn’t a dirty word

Christine Tongue

Would you call me a cripple? I can’t walk without a stick, my bones are crumbling and the next step – might be my last – is into a wheel chair. Feeling sorry for me? A bit guilty you didn’t contribute to any of the disability charities?

Would you feel differently if you thought I was getting lots of state benefits? Would I deserve them?

Does the word itself make you uncomfortable?

In 1952, aged seven, I became a child “crippled by polio”.

At the time this was seen as a factual description and generated patronising guilt in the general population.

Christine (right) and friend

Newly invented physiotherapy made sure I walked again, but gravity and time take their toll on weak muscles and now I’m a disabled pensioner.

But in my lifetime the word “cripple” took on a terrible set of extra meanings – not quite human, stupid, definitely not something you wanted to be!

The last time anyone called me that was when an elderly friend fell over while she was with me. She called for help and explained that I couldn’t lift her up as: “she’s a cripple!”

The word went through me like a blade.

I thought I was looking quite normal at the time and now here I was labelled as really inferior, and noticeably different from normal people.

In fact a lot of people would have found it hard to pick up someone four stones heavier than themselves, but, it seemed, I was especially unable as my body was defective in some way.

The 1970s and 80s saw vast changes in equalities legislation – women were supposed to be paid the same as men and cripples got a new name “disabled people” – and there was a big change in attitudes. Cripples got help with mobility and funding to lead a more normal life.

But as the economy faltered and austerity and belt tightening was seen as the answer, disabled people were seen as eating up too many state resources.

A new term was coined: “benefit scrounger”. Headlines in the tabloid newspapers highlighted the people who had pretended to be disabled to get state benefits: the man in a wheelchair who was seen going dancing, the woman working while claiming long term illness assistance etc etc.

The disabled are easy targets. Most are grateful for any help they get and many are scared to grumble.

But the steady erosion of help for the disabled is taking an almost Victorian turn. People are dying waiting for suitable housing or having their carer hours cut so they can’t eat properly, or have to go to bed to keep warm because they can’t pay their gas bill.

Filling in the endless intrusive forms to get the help you’re entitled to is immensely stressful – I know someone who killed herself because filling in the forms and waiting to be assessed was too much for her.

I have a friend who is dependent on a wheelchair because she has MS. She has to prove all the time that she can’t work.

But disabled people also have to deal with the attitudes that have been encouraged to grow, that we might now be burdens on the taxpayer and we don’t deserve to be helped.

Why put a ramp on a public building when only two per cent of the population might need it? Why give a mobility allowance to someone who is too decrepit to go to work anyhow?

Well, the answer is that we are still a rich country! We can choose to spend our wealth looking after the vulnerable, old and disabled if we want to.

And if government won’t do it, we cripples have to redefine how we think of ourselves. We have to rid ourselves of meek gratitude and demand that we are included in every aspect of life – especially in politics.

Let’s fight for disabled people to have a real say at every level. Acknowledge that we are the main victims of austerity. Give us power!

(A must read on this topic is “Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People, by Frances Ryan)


  1. We are a rich country indeed, despite the number of wealthy people who think they shouldn’t pay their share – Jacob Rees Mogg for one. State finances are hugely more robbed by wealthy tax evaders than they are by the small number of benefit cheats. These rich but selfish are the real cheats today.

    • The wealthy as you like to call them pay most of the tax in this country. Now that the personal allowance has been raised more people have been lifted out of paying tax.
      Tax evasion is illegal, tax avoidance or tax planning is perfectly sensible. Don’t accuse people who you regard as rich as being cheats without evidence.

      • The wealthy (as they are) pay a much smaller percentage of their wealth in tax than the less well off. And they have many means of avoiding tax. Legal maybe, but then they’re the ones making the laws.

          • And who are the government? Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg, etc etc. All very wealthy. Funny how one of their proposed plans is to reduce higher-rate tax.

  2. Isn’t it strange how our attitudes and thoughts change as we get older.

    The 20 mile country walks reduced down to 100 yards maximum on a flat surface if you are lucky.
    All the sports etc activities we used to enjoy reduced down to taking pain killers because we now have arthritis in most of our joints and because of the 10 year wait for a hip and or knee replacement have taken their toll.
    The charity work we used to carry out reduced down to fighting causes on our computers.

    We no longer say poor old codger or look at that doddery old git. We are that person now.

      • Until a few years ago I used to swim a mile every other day, and cycle everywhere locally! I am in my eighth decade now, and can no longer swim, due to being diagnosed with Emphysema, and Pulmonary Fibrosis a couple of years ago (although I was treated for over 3 years for Swimming Induced Asthma!). I also have macula eye disease which means I am losing my central vision, and I am being monitored for glaucoma, which means I may lose my peripheral vision. I also have a genetic heart condition, which escaped the medics attention in 1960 when I was passed A1 in the last of the National Service Army! Have you noticed anything in common with all these problems? Well they are all “Hidden” disabilities!! At a glance I do not look any different to many people my age, I don’t walk with any aids like a walking stick, although of course I am much slower. What I would object to is being labelled a “Cripple”, or worse, “Handicapped”! I don’t even like to admit being disabled, but that is what I am, so no thanks Christine, I can do without labels, but if one is necessary, what about “Diferently Abled”?

    • In the Republic of Ireland, some public lavatory facilities are labelled “Enabled Toilet”.
      Positive touch, I should think

  3. Keep fighting, Christine! Your comrades in the Labour party are with you! Benefit scroungers? RUBBISH! A human being is a human being!

  4. Yes, Andrew. and so, because some people do use devious means to obtain State Benefits should it be only correct to assume that all such claimants are equally devious? The system is tricky enough to negotiate for many without such prejudice, imo.

  5. In reply to Phil, recent research has found Corbyn’s personal wealth exceeds that of Boris Johnson.
    Also, John McDonnell has a second home on the Norfolk Broads. Several of the shadow cabinet also have second homes.

    • Yeah right! Just another smear item found in all those in the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express et al, nearly all or part foreign owned! Jeremy Corbyn is a man of honour and integrity, and has fought all his life for the benefit of others who are unable to defend themselves against the ruling class! In return he has received nothing but opprobrium from the right wing press, and media why? Because they are on £millions a year as editors, or CEO’s of multibillion companies, or hundreds of thousands as journalist/ broadcasters, and do now want to pay their share of taxes!

      According to the I newspaper, 29th May, “Britain’s network of tax havens is by far the worlds greatest enabler of corporate tax avoidance”. That’s why these “Captains” of industry hate him, its because he plans to make them pay their fare share of tax, instead of salting it away in off shore tax havens!

      • Your claim that Jeremy Corbyn is a man of honour is debatable. He supported the IRA, he always sides with Britain’s enemies, he falsely claimed there were no seats on a train whilst making a video about overcrowding, he claimed he wasn’t at a wreath laying for a terrorist. He done very little to root out anti Semitism.
        Just a few examples.
        He gets criticised because of his extreme views and policies not because his critics are wealthy.

  6. Has one of Andrew’s comments been deleted? His 3.37 and 3.39 pm comments don’t suggest that all benefit claimants are devious.

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