Two days ago, March 7th, was the national (international?) “Spread the Word to End the Word” day. On that day, we are asked to spread the message that the R-Word is a hurtful, awful thing, that language DOES hurt, and that when people use it in a derogatory fashion, they are causing harm to those with intellectual disabilities, by spreading a negative image about them. And of course, it was to encourage people to remove the r-word from their vocabularies. I was going to post this on the day of, but as things started getting crazy, and I realized that I didn’t have time to write a quality post and have it appear until much later in the day/night, I decided that it might be a good thing that I’m a day late. Because March 7 shouldn’t be the only day which we band together to promote respectful language use for those in the disability community. This is something we should be working towards and thinking about every day. Because it’s not like saying “that’s retarded” is any more or less hurtful depending on the calendar date. Language choices can hurt. When someone uses the r-word to punctuate a negative feeling they have, they are effectively saying that everyone who has that label is bad. It’s a claim that those people are all worthless, frustrating, losers, and all around awful. And this is not only disrespectful, it’s wildly untrue! There have been some really wonderful posts about the r-word and its detrimental effect on people, including this and this. (and many many others.) They do a far more eloquent job of explaining why we should erase our use of the r-word than I am about to do below.
Now I do not personally have an intellectual disability, and I have never been friends with someone with an intellectual disability (our paths never crossed, as I was too shy to join best buddies in high school, and that was as close as inclusion came, unfortunately.) The closest I’ve ever been to a person with an ID is a childhood acquaintance of mine’s older brother, who has Down’s Syndrome. But that doesn’t change my stance about the word. Language can hurt, regardless of intention. We in the Autism community see this quite often, sadly frequently in conversations between adult Autistic Self Advocates and some of the parents in the Autism community. I saw it when I was actively involved in the LGBT community, with the words “that’s so gay!” being used the same way the r-word is, often for the exact same negative reasons. And I once got into a fight with a person who I had a lot of respect for (who happens to be a militant atheist*), because he went on a tirade against someone with a Catholic Radio bumper sticker, saying “f— whatever autistic tendency prompts you to think your altruistic “love” deserves anything but contempt”. Heck, I know people who campaign against the phrase “you guys” when addressing a group of people that includes men and women. Language can hurt. Sentiment behind words can hurt, even when the sentiment isn’t consciously there in the first place. But communication is more than just words; it is the sentiment behind the words that the person on the receiving end of the conversation hears. And regardless the intentions of the speaker, if the listener hears something that is hurtful to them, or makes them feel like they are worthless, then there is a problem. No person or group of persons is inherently “less human”, and they should never be made to feel that way. Using the r-word (or any other label such as those discussed above) in a negative way, whether intentional or not, only builds the idea that those who share that label are bad, or in some way less worthy. And so we should be working towards ending the use of the R-Word, and more importantly, promoting conscientious language use. And if you haven’t already, go take the pledge to end the word and visit www.r-word.org to learn more.
Now I am a person who lives by a simple rule: “assume good intentions”. This rule has served me well throughout my life, and has helped me to keep from springing immediately when someone says something that I find offensive. Because the point isn’t to get in to a fight. It’s to have a productive dialogue, and to help people to come to the conclusion (and people tend to respond better when they come up with an idea “on their own”, rather than having it “preached” to them) that using the language they have been using is hurtful, and they could make a positive change to millions of lives by simply changing their dialogue. Most people are inherently reasonable, good human beings (though I do acknowledge that a large number of those on the internet are NOT**). They don’t mean to cause offense, they just do. They simply have a desire to express themselves verbally, with the language they have. If you ask most people whether they would use the r-word “that way” to describe someone with an intellectual disability, they would be horrified that you even suggested such a thing. And with the right nudging in the right situations, these individuals will see the good side of things**. Because the campaign to “spread the word to end the word” isn’t just about stopping people from using the “r-word” in everyday conversation where it really doesn’t belong. It’s to get people to think about their language and word choices and the effects they have on others, and to show (and have) respect all persons, regardless of ability, or any other part of their personhood.
I know most of the readers of this blog have long since removed the r-word from their vocabularies and are well aware of how extremely hurtful and offensive it is. But we can all take a minute to step back and think about how our language impacts others, and how we are impacted by theirs. And when we hear something that rubs us the wrong way, we are allowed to be offended. But more than that, I want to remind people to take a second to think before they pounce on someone who has said something offensive. Take the 10 second pause and remember – they’re probably coming from a place of ignorance, not from a place of hate. That doesn’t make it alright to say what they did, but it does change how we call them out. The golden rule applies to all of us. I’ve used language that has offended people in the past, and I know I will in the future. But when I do slip up, and say something that someone finds offensive or demeaning, no matter what the reason, it is my hope that rather than label me as an awful individual and pounce on me, tearing me and whatever I said apart, that they open up a dialogue and explain why what I said was bad, so that I can change it in the future. I’m not perfect. I don’t know everything. No one does. But I strive to learn more and to be a better, more respectful person, in my ways of thinking and in my speech and writing. Conscious, contentious, considerate communication. And that, really, is what this is about.
So let’s spread the word!
*I am also an atheist, but I do not agree with his form of militant atheism. This example is not based on religious views. It’s the fact that this person has no respect for people who are religious (he in fact, believes they are brainwashed automatons), and believes that the word to describe his contempt for their existence (which includes this brainwashed automaton-ness) is “autistic”.
** This isn’t saying that there aren’t awful trolls on the internet looking for a fight – there are, but they’re not our target audience. Not yet, anyway. But it is not our duty to be those trolls either.
Other amazing posts:
And lastly, this beautiful video: