The Weight of Words

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I have engaged in multiple conversations with others regarding words that come up when speaking about disability. Like me, they want to learn which terms are more politically correct than others and what words they should abolish from their vocabulary. In the months to follow Avery’s diagnosis I found that words like “normal” suddenly held an entirely new meaning. I found myself at a loss for how to navigate through a sea of politically correct terms I never knew existed.

When we first found out that Avery had Down syndrome, I was constantly stumbling and putting my foot in my mouth by using words that for the first time suddenly felt inappropriate. In conversation with others, I would find myself referring to children without Down syndrome as “normal.” It would come out so naturally, but a sharp sting in my gut would follow. It wasn’t the right word. It felt bad. I went straight to the source and asked other parents online for guidance. I become part of a new community virtually overnight and I had some “catching up” to do.

Over the past two years, I have learned firsthand that the human race just isn’t capable of truly understanding foreign concepts that they themselves have not experienced. We hear phrases like, “walk a mile in my shoes,” and we try to sympathize with other’s situations but in our society we still use words and phrases that demean and affect others negatively. Words hurt. Words are powerful.

A co-worker once referred to a group of other co-workers as “those who ride the short bus.” My heart sank and that was the very first time it all became clear to me. My son, my sweet little boy, was going to be “one of those people” who will ride the short bus. My heart hurt and in that moment I finally knew how it felt to have a thoughtless comment bring you to tears.

Have I ever said something that made someone else feel that way?

The word retarded is no exception. I would like to say I have never used this word in a negative way, but that’s simply not true. I grew up hearing and using the word as a way to insult another, and have justified it myself for years because I was in a culture of people that believed it was ok.

Now I realize that justification is absurd.

The diagnosis of “mental retardation” was first established around the middle of the 20th century to replace words such as “moron” and “idiot.” People within the disability community have fought for some time to abolish this term of retardation. As Tony Anderson, executive director of The Arc of California explains, “It’s often used when people are being victimized. It is attached to a long history of abuse and crime against people with disabilities that we’re continuing to fight now.”

Now that I am raising a child with disabilities, I understand. It’s really too bad that often it takes firsthand experience for us to really “get it.” It’s never too late to learn from our past mistakes. That’s what is so special about this life we live; we can continue to get better and are given the gift of second chances. We can grow from our mistakes and not only better ourselves, but speak of our own experiences to the world around us in hopes that we can all benefit from learning how our words affect others. I encourage everyone to reflect on the words you use, and to always be thoughtful. Our words are powerful beyond measure. Let your words lift and inspire rather than hurt.

Before Avery I had never heard of “people first” language. If you have never heard of it either and would like to learn more, I suggest checking out this link as a quick and easy reference.

As for some additional reading, here are just a few articles/posts that have encouraged me to write on this subject. I think each of them carry a powerful message and a fresh perspective…

5 Things People Don’t Get About The Word Retarded

“Smile Like a Retard”

Words and Worth

2 thoughts on “The Weight of Words

  1. Thanks for the link Helen Lyn. Great piece. It’s a shame that we don’t get it till it directly affects us (I used to use it all the time too…) but hopefully by sharing the reasons why it hurts we can inform more people too!

    Like

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