Within no time I had accepted Armelle’s invitation. There are few sports I don’t enjoy watching and the chance to be a spectator at a tournament of sarbacane – in English ‘blowpiping’ – was irresistible; it was, for me, a first. 

The tournament, which would last most of the day was the third part of a three-round selection process to find the champion of Finistère (our department in France). Moreover, whoever won would be invited to compete in the forthcoming regional, all-Brittany championship. All forty or so of the participants were disabled people and had impairments affecting muscle power or control. Most of them were wheelchair users; for the majority their impairment had been lifelong; for some, there were associated learning difficulties.

In many ways, blowpiping is similar to archery or darts. Each competitor shoots missiles at a target. The missiles are tiny darts or needles; the target has five concentric rings and a central bull’s-eye. Darts are projected by blowing them at high speed through a narrow pipe. The pipe is either held by the competitors themselves or is supported using a stand. Each competitor has ten turns, each time blowing three darts. At the end of the day the scores are added up – darts landing in the outer ring score 6 points, in the inner bull’s eye 10, and so on.  In this particular event, the participant with the highest total score over the three rounds would be declared local champion. 

In France, the event, which requires stability, concentration, muscle coordination and an ability to produce an explosive puff, is played by disabled and non-disabled competitors alike. The key difference is that, for those who are disabled the target is closer. 

It is fascinating how the blowpipe, a 2000-year old device, has been so ingeniously adapted for sport. Indigenous South American hunters, who were amongst some of its earliest users, would shoot their darts over long distances and, with the tip of each dart laden with curare, those animals hit would be paralysed. Nowadays, when used as weapons, they are usually called blowguns and the darts can travel up to 100 metres. In many countries such blowguns are seen as so dangerous that their use, sale and possession is illegal. Oddly, in California blowgun use is more tightly controlled than are firearms! 

After the day’s competition, and as the final scores were being counted, I was introduced to Gaëlle Lozach, a wheelchair-using spectator. No ordinary member of the public – until recently she had been France’s national sarbacane champion. We spoke about the sport and about her achievements. Then, suddenly our conversation faltered. What she said felt so unjust and hurtful. We were talking about the level of skill she had attained and she told me how, as an “invalid athlete” she would find competing against “valid athletes” difficult. Just in case I had mis-heard, I asked her to repeat her comment and yes, in her sport, and in the French language more generally, disabled athletes, or disabled people generally, are classified as “invalid” and those who are non-disabled, as my French-English, Collins-Robert dictionary puts it, are described as “able-bodied”,“fit”, or “valid”. 

I asked Gaëlle how she felt about being classified in this way and it was clear that she felt it was unfair and upsetting and her resigned expression said much more “It is something I have to accept. I am in no position to do anything”. 

In the 1980s and 90s, the UK’s disabled people’s movement fought to change, amongst other things, discriminatory language. They argued that the way society uses words is critical and if the words chosen undermined equality and respect their use should be challenged and changed. Amongst the words which caused most offence was the term ‘invalid’ which had historically been used to describe people with any serious impairment. The idea that someone with impairement could be without value or valued less than others was seen as plain wrong. As a result of their campaign the word ‘invalid’ is now rarely used in relation to disability in the UK. Interestingly, in the UK we have never used  the word ‘valid’ to mean ‘strong’ or ‘able-bodied’, so no equivalent battle was necessary.  That such insulting usage can continue in spoken and written French, a language that in so many ways is so elegant and poetic, is worrying.

Using blowpipes to create a competitive sport for disabled people is ingenious. Coupling this ingenuity with language that can only hurt their athletes is a terrible injustice. Words have meanings according to their usage rather than their origins. To class athletes as ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’ cannot be right. Hopefully the French authorities will see sense and resolve this injustice. 

The illustration shows three blowpipe targets at the event of which one is pierced by darts.

For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Armelle, Jeni, Annie, Rohan and Vivien.

8 thoughts on “What’s in a Word?

  1. Hello Joe. This piece is very interesting. I hadn’t hear of blowpiping as a competitive sport. The other thing is the word invalid. I have only ever associated it (pronounced with the stress on in) with a person who is not well – I don’t think it’s even much used in that respect here any more. But I’d never thought about the word itself and realised that it is a way of saying not valid.

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    1. Dear Andrea, Thanks for your comment. It is odd how we use words without thinking about their various ramifications. The word ‘invalid’ is a perfect example, and when you use it to make a distinction with ‘valid’ to describe someone else it just gets worse. Joe

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  2. Hi Joe Likewise I have never thought of the invalid being opposite to valid except in the truthful or real sense. Fascinating.
    When we were in Costa Rica we saw the poison arrow frogs – small bright red frogs. They collected the poisonous mucus from their skin somehow.

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  3. Dear Joe,
    Just as others who commented I had never thought of “invalid” as anything other than a sick person-but interesting that we don’t use the word much any more. What an interesting story- a sport that works for almost anyone!
    Love
    Robin

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  4. Dear Robin, It is important that word usage can change. Often it can be the result of concerted effort. The loss of the use of ‘invalid’ in Australia and elsewhere could well be the result of the work of the pioneering UK’s disabled people’s movement to which I refer. The making of the words describing the horrific acts of the Nazis as ‘everyday’ – a process in France referred to as ‘banalisation’ – is probably being orchestrated by the right wing. We must be on guard! Love, Joe

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  5. This is such a thought-provoking and important blog, Joe. All liberation and equality movements have tackled the issue of terminology and the use of inappropriate and damaging language. Analysing the language that is used, understanding where it has come from and finding more empowering alternatives is a key part of challenging oppression and discrimination. Marginalised and oppressed groups need to redefine the terminology themselves and help other people to understand why the words that are used are so important. You are right in your comment to Robin that language is dynamic and changing. We need allies like you Joe, who are indignant or even outraged when you realise these things and help spread the message.
    JJ Fruitbat
    X

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    1. Dear JJ Fruitbat, As always, you are so thoughtful and creative. The odd thing is that revealing the inappropriate use of language can help so much. After reading the blog a close French friend told me how it had changed how she thought.
      Love and thanks, Joe

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