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First Person: The PC Bellringer of Notre Dame

Changing words out of a misplaced sensitivity does its own damage

Saturday, September 28, 2002

By Wash Gjebre

The political correctness extremists are at it again. This time they've targeted Victor Hugo's literary classic, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Over the summer, a theater group in London launched a production based on Victor Hugo's classic novel -- but called it "The Bellringer of Notre Dame."

   Wash Gjebre is a retired Post-Gazette staff writer living in Greensburg. 

Elli Mackenzie of Oddsocks Productions told The Associated Press, "We did not want to reinforce any stereotypes about Quasimodo's disability." They made the change after consulting with a disability adviser. She further noted that the 1831 novel's original title was "Notre Dame de Paris," and that it had been changed to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" in an early English translation.

The name change was cheered by London's Scoliosis Association. "I welcome it because in the past the title has caused some problems with our members in that people use it as a derogatory term throwing names and making comments at the possible similarities," said Scoliosis Association spokesperson Libby Biberian, who has scoliosis.

I never thought much about pathetic Quasimodo's scoliosis until Oddsocks made it an issue; he has always been the hunchback. I've never considered the condition to be offensive. And the English title of the book -- well, it has endured the test of time in literature. (And Charles Laughton was great in the 1939 film.)

Oh, by the way, I am a victim of scoliosis, too.

Nothing serious, mind you. Scoliosis runs in our family, with my father showing the most severe hump, which never interfered with the physical part of his lifestyle. He worked as a laborer for Westinghouse at East Pittsburgh, but his scoliosis never interrupted his earning power. He wouldn't even know how to spell scoliosis, let alone understand that, according to health sources, "The scoliotic spine has rotational deformity" and "the spine turns on its axis like a corkscrew . . . there are hereditary factors . . . asymmetry of shoulder, trunk and waistline that form significant disfigurement."

I always referred to the problem as a "curvature of the spine," until I learned that indeed it is scoliosis, a condition that had no ill effects. I bend to the side ever so slightly, which makes my left pant leg shorter than my right. At an early age, I did all the things that a young boy does in high school: swimming, football, basketball, gym and tumbling and a host of other physical fitness activities. I really never realized that I was a scoliosis victim because I could engage in all the fun and games that other kids enjoyed. It's hardly noticeable.

Then after graduating from high school, I was gung-ho and tried to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. A couple of pals and I made the trek to the old post office in Pittsburgh and went through the examination process. The doctor singled me out and asked, "What's wrong with your back, son?" I replied that I wasn't aware that anything was wrong with my back. "Get dressed," the doctor said. I wanted so much to join the Marines and I was devastated at my 4-F designation. What did I know about scoliosis? I felt confident that I could have gone through basic training and taken anything the marines could dish out.

I also tried the Army, Navy and Coast Guard and they all disappointed me with a 4-F rating because of my curvature of the spine. The army tried to draft me at the height of the Korean War and the same physical condition kept me on the home front, but by then I was no longer disappointed because I had two years of college under my belt.

It was years later that I learned that my condition was actually "scoliosis." But the condition has never interrupted my active physical lifestyle.

Indeed, the hunchback of Notre Dame has many gruesome imperfections that are detailed throughout Victor Hugo's work. But it's disturbing that political correctness forces people to alter words. Suddenly we're introduced to a new title that doesn't ring a bell in the literary world.

Quasimodo has some wonderful qualities and has even been called "lovable." But he will always be the hunchback first and a bellringer second. His imperfection may well remind us that the beauty of a rose is never diminished by its thorns.

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