The Power of Language

October 12, 2011 · 16 comments

in Things People Say

African-American.

Gay and lesbian.

Disabled person.

What do you think of when you see these phrases?

Nigger.

Faggot.

How do you feel when you hear or see these words?

Retard.

How is this word different from the previous two? Why do many in today’s society think it’s fine to use the words retard or retarded, but not nigger or faggot?

As a mom to a delightful son with Down syndrome, it cuts me like a knife when I hear someone casually toss out the words “retard” or “retarded.” A word that was once used in medical/clinical terms to describe someone with intellectual impairment is now routinely used as a punchline in movies, stand-up comedy, and even by my peers.

If someone uses the r-word in my presence, I gently ask them not to do it again. Their response is most often something like, “Oh, but I didn’t mean that!” and (most of the time) I believe they are sincere. But the thing is…people don’t use the words retard or retarded in a positive way.

Retarded is never a compliment.

But is the issue really about being offensive? Utimately, it’s up to me to choose whether I’m going to be offended. I can choose who I associate with. I get to pick my friends. I make decisions about what movies or comedians I see. The real issue at stake isn’t hurt feelings.

Language is powerful.

Negative language that calls to mind a specific group of people can have devastating consequences. Every time that someone uses the words retard or retarded, they are devaluing all people with cognitive impairment. They are reinforcing the stereotype that people with intellectual disabilities are worth less than typical people. They are coopting what was once a neutral medical/clinical term and transforming it into an insult.

When a group of people is devalued, their opportunities are limited. They are more likely to be targeted by bullies…or worse.

African-Americans were once viewed as lesser humans, and were subsequently enslaved. After they were freed, it took another century for them to gain equal rights. Jews in Germany were targeted for extinction by their government. Slurs were a big part of Nazi propaganda – ordinary people like you and I allowed the Holocaust to occur because they believed that Jews were lesser humans.

More dangerous than direct slurs are those who claim to feel compassion for individuals with disabilities. Compassionate-sounding phrases like “burden to society,” “ease suffering,” and “better for the family” are used to justify institutionalization, abortion, and yes, even euthanasia.

A lesser known aspect of Nazi history is that not only Jews, but also children with disabilities were euthanized. Reasonable people willingly handed their children over to the government because they believed the message, repeated often, that it was the compassionate thing to do for their child.

But those days are gone, right?

Could something like that happen in our country today?

If you don’t believe it could, I challenge you to Google “mentally disabled woman murdered” and see what you find.

Pay attention to the news media for a little while. I set up a Google alert to feed me news stories related to Down syndrome and cerebral palsy (many of my Sun-Beams links are obtained in this manner). One thing I’ve noticed over the past several months is that even the positive, feel-good stories carry headlines such as these (emphasis mine):

Broadcasting dream comes true for cerebral palsy victim

Budding chef and cerebral palsy sufferer Amber Dayton, 18, meets Masterchef contestants Alana Lowes and John Hughes

Young victim of cerebral palsy gets an assist with a softball fundraiser in Bayonne

Words such as “victim” and “sufferer” are problematic, even when used in an otherwise positive context, because they reinforce images of helplessness and inability to be independent or productive – the so-called “burden to society.”

Today, I encourage you to take a stand to not only end the r-word, but to confront and help to eliminate any and all language that devalues people.

Today’s post in an adaptation of the “Courageous Conversations” session that I facilitated on Monday at Georgia Highlands College.

If you enjoyed this post, download my FREE eBook, There's Sunshine Behind the Cloudsa resource for special needs parents. There’s Sunshine Behind the Clouds: Surviving the Early Years as a Special Needs Mom is for every mother of a child with special needs who is at the beginning of the journey, struggling to gain her footing on ever-shifting sands. It focuses on how to not only survive the emotional roller coaster of special needs parenting, but enjoy the ride.
Erin October 12, 2011 at 11:31 am

I really enjoyed reading this post. What bothers me most is when others say “what’s the big deal”. If only ever one could really see “the deal”.
I find it interesting that when I write similar posts on this topic my titles are usually along the lines of…”The stupid things people say”.

Andi October 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I believe that people who say “what’s the big deal” think only in terms of what is “PC” or offensive. They don’t realize (maybe because it’s never been pointed out to them) that the most important isn’t the offensive nature, it’s what careless language can do.

Erin October 12, 2011 at 11:42 am

I really enjoyed reading this post. What bothers me most is when others say “what’s the big deal”. If only every one could really see “the deal”.
I find it interesting that when I write similar posts on this topic my titles are usually along the lines of…”The stupid things people say”.

Shannon October 12, 2011 at 11:44 am

Very powerful!!!!! The r-word also cuts me like a knife… I have a severely autistic son who is nonverbal and quirky ;) and I’m a huge advocate for eradicating the r-word from the English language! There are so many synonyms, that the word is rendered unnecessary.

Andi October 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm

I agree – people often rely on it as a crutch when they are too lazy/uncreative/whatever to come up with something better.

k October 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm

You hit it on the head. Every time.

Thank you for this. Do you mind if I post to my facebook page? You always say it better than I can.

Andi October 12, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Feel free to share this or any of posts at any time, k.

Sonya October 13, 2011 at 12:29 am

Wow. I am sharing this one Andi! Everyone needs to read this.

Nisha October 13, 2011 at 2:49 am

You are SO right Andi no matter how productive I am as a citizen of the world people still view me as helpless because of the images reinforced by the media.

Andi October 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm

And the thing is, Nisha – most people never even think about how words like “victim” and “sufferer” influence how they think about others. It’s the language cloaked in compassion that can be the most insidious.

Kelli October 19, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Andi – I’m a mom of a 6 year old girl with DS. I think the thing that bugs me the most about the R word is that every mile stone she has made in her life took her a lot of hard work. She works hard to get to where she is and for people to so quickly use that word as if the indvidual is somehow lacking, when in actuality kids with developmental delays work twice as hard to get to their goals of walking, reading and writing. People don’t realize how hard our kids work to get where they are and generally do it happily with out complaint. I enjoy your blog, thanks for putting down your words, it makes this big world of DS seem less scarey.

Andi October 19, 2011 at 7:20 pm

You are so right, Kelli. Many people don’t appreciate the luxury they are afforded of being able to do things easily – they would be much less likely to carelessly throw out words like these if they had ever faced (or watched a loved one face) difficulty and rise above it.

Thanks for visiting and for sharing your story here.

Holly December 6, 2011 at 8:54 pm

I love when people make me think. Thank you.

B September 12, 2013 at 11:53 am

I 100% agree with you that the r-word is unacceptable and should never be used. But I feel like faggot isn’t the best example you could have used because it doesn’t have the backlash it should. There are many people who think it’s an okay word to use, so when I see ads against the r-word it frustrates me when they use examples like, “You wouldn’t call me a faggot.” Because people do, all the time. That said, I think the LGBTQ and special needs communities need to stand together – right now, it’s both of our civil rights movements.

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