What’s in a word?

March is a big month in the Down syndrome community. March 21 – 3.21, for three copies of the 21st chromosome – is World Down Syndrome Awareness Day, and there are usually several events leading up to that day. Today, for example, is dedicated to Spread the Word to End the Word, a campaign focused on helping people eliminate the word “retarded” from their vocabularies.

I haven’t posted a lot about this particular issue, because my feelings on this are a little complicated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s jarring when I hear people use the word “retarded” as a pejorative. I know the imagery it evokes, and it’s not flattering to people like Lina, who until pretty recently bore the term as a medical label. (It wasn’t until Obama signed Rosa’s Law in 2010 that “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” were removed from government policy language.) The r-word as an insult draws a parallel between a type of person and something stupid and contemptible.  The words we use do affect how we think about and treat others. I don’t buy the idea that considering the feelings of others is too much of a “political correctness” burden to bear.

On the other hand, I get it. We are dealing here with language creep. There is a long history of words that refer to people with disabilities becoming general insults. We don’t kick up the same kind of fuss today about the words “idiot” or “moron” (though I would certainly discourage my kids from using them out of general kindness). At its most literal, “retarded” means “slowed down.” In that sense, it is an apt explanation of what happens for people with an intellectual disability, who generally take a little extra time to learn and process.

lina-eyesI have found it very helpful to operate based on people’s best intentions. I get that when it comes to any sensitive issue, many of us – myself included  – don’t always know what to say. The last thing I want is to make people so fearful of saying the wrong thing that they are unwilling to engage at all. Open dialogue is the only way to address the bigger issues at stake. I want friends and acquaintances – or strangers in the grocery store, for that matter – to feel free to ask questions in good faith. I want you, dear reader, to know that it’s okay not to know. The only real crime here is being unwilling to learn.

Which, I suppose, brings us full circle. While I understand that many, many people use the r-word without meaning any offense, its connotation can be very hurtful to a lot of people. So here’s the deal: I promise not to crucify you for unintentional offenses. I get that there are things you don’t know about people with Down syndrome. It’s okay. But I will urge you to learn. Be willing to ask questions, to get to really know people with disabilities, or, if that’s more than you can do, to at least read up.

Words matter because they refer to deeper things: to how we as a society view and categorize people. What are our deep-seated assumptions about a person with an intellectual disability, the ones we would never say out loud and may not even realize we hold? Do you really understand that every person with a disability is a unique individual who is loved and valued as a family member, school mate, coworker, friend and neighbor? Or are you unintentionally reducing people with intellectual disabilities to a caricature that makes them “other” and minimizes their humanity and value? Once we all have a handle on those issues, I have a feeling the words we use will naturally change to reflect our respect and understanding.

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