I just read a great post on the blog Postcards from the edge of the Spectrum titled
Taking Back The R-Word. In it the author says that by using the term “r-word” when we’re asking folks not to use the word “retarded”, we’re lessening the power of our protests. We should feel free to say, “Please don’t use the word retarded. It’s thoughtless.” (Forgive my paraphrasing here. To get the author’s full message, please read the post.)
I agree with the author. I also think that using the term “r-word” makes us sound like a bunch of prissy second-grade girls. It’s as if we’re afraid of the word retarded or that if we say it, I don’t know, our heads will explode or our mothers will come wash our mouths out with soap. It’s just a word. Furthermore, I think our crusade against the word retarded is a waste of time that while it might make us feel better about ourselves, will ultimately do little to help people with disabilities.
Now before you start on the argument that words have power (which is true) or start writing me hate mail about what a callous, unfeeling, horrible person I am (which is almost completely untrue), hear me out.
Instead of telling people to “quit using the r-word”, or to “stop using the word retarded”, how about we tell them “quit making fun of disabled people”? I mean, that is our point, right? We want them to stop thinking that disabled people are “less than.” We want them to treat people with disabilities with respect instead of using them as the butt of a joke or an insult. It’s people’s attitudes that we want to change. Changing their vocabulary without changing their attitude is pointless. What ground have we gained if instead of someone insulting their friend by saying “What are you, retarded?” they say “What are you, disabled?” What do we do then? Tell everyone to stop using the word “disabled” and we’ll tell them the next right word to use – until the jerks claim that word for their own, too? That is how it works, historically – check out the progression of politically correct terms for minority groups over time. Today’s politically correct terms will be considered insulting in a decade or two. Changing society’s vocabulary does nothing unless we change people’s attitudes as well.
This isn’t just a rhetorical argument for me. In my immediate family (myself, my hubby and my kids), we are all disabled. Literally. I have the parking placards to prove it. So, this is an argument that affects our lives. When I look at what I want for my children (let alone for myself and my sweetie), I find that I don’t really care what words people use to describe my kids. I care how they treat them. If they’re being nice, I appreciate it. If they’re rude, disrespectful or insulting, I don’t. Period. End of discussion.
This argument about vocabulary extends to the world of autism as well. There’s a huge debate over calling someone “autistic” or “a person with autism.” People are arguing about how the words used affect the identity of people with autism. It’s more than a debate – in some quarters it’s an absolute war. Parents and autistics are in a knock-down drag out. (Teachers are kind of caught in the middle – doing their jobs and waiting until the dust settles to they can figure out what terms to use so they don’t offend anyone.) Take a few minutes to Google “person first language” and you can see the conflicting blog posts and flame wars for yourself. This is an issue that a lot of people are seriously upset about.
For the most part, I don’t care about this argument. (My son is old enough that I remember the days when almost no one knew the word autistic at all, and we parents were thankful to meet someone who did. We were delighted to hear autistic instead of “rotten, little brat.”) My attitude is “pick a term, any term, and let me get on with my job.” But this conflict over vocabulary is actually harming our kids. I saw an example the other day on-line. A parent was posting on a message board and said “The teacher seemed wonderful and I loved the program they were offering my child. But then the teacher referred to my child as autistic. I was horrified. There is no way I’m going to leave my child in the care of such a prejudiced person.” So instead of taking the great program with the wonderful teacher, that parent pulled her child from the class and went looking for another program. I hope she found one just as good with a teacher who could correctly guess which term would offend the mother least.
A lot of people are putting a lot of time and energy into changing our society’s vocabulary. They are working hard to improve the lives of people and I applaud their effort and compassion. I just hope they know that changing the words people use, while it can be a step in changing society, is not in itself enough. Changing our vocabulary without changing our attitudes is like putting up new wallpaper on rotten walls. It might look better, but in reality, the problems are all still there, lurking under the surface.
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