Friday, 25 October 2013

sticks and stones may break my bones . . .

. . . but names can never hurt me.

Sounds logical, sensible, matter-of-fact.

But you know what?  It's rubbish.  Complete rubbish.

As the parent of a child with special needs I've heard a lot of language associated with disability over the years : different words; politically correct phrases; insults; things that are meant one way but sound another; and I know very well how much a simple word can cause immense emotional pain.

The way we hear certain words being used through our childhood and teenage years can have a significant influence on how we interpret those words later on in our lives.  By way of example, I was told Smiler was likely to be profoundly mentally retarded.  I'm thirty three, and one of the worst insults that was (frequently) hurled around during my teenage years was retard, as in you're such a retard, or what are you, retarded or something?  Because of that, I initially struggled with Smiler's 'mentally retarded' label, but it fell out of use by professionals anyway, principally because it had been seized upon by society and associated with such negativity.  Conversely, I have kind of taken it back - I will use it, as a slice of medical terminology, if I am (for whatever reason!) listing Smiler's various diagnoses, partly, to be honest, because of the shock value.  I think if it gets heard in its proper context people might then be less inclined to use it as an insult.

Like so many of us, as a parent of a child with special needs I can be  hyper-sensitive to the language around me, from 80's movies (Oh my god did you hear what he just said?  Was that supposed to be funny?) to the person behind me in the queue at the supermarket (Actually no, I don't think it's okay that you just described my child as 'the village idiot') and I have been known to climb up on my high horse every so often and . . . *clears throat* . . . erm . . . educate those around me.  

But then, I'm also a complete hypocrite.  It's going to take some explanation, so you'll have to wait till next week to find out why.

In the meantime, are there particular words or phrases that make your stomach churn, or are we all too sensitive?  Do you think it makes a difference who is saying it - do you look more to the intention than the words themselves, if, perhaps an elderly relative uses language you wouldn't accept from your teenage neighbour?


  1. I'm with you, the word "retard" catches me every time. My little brother was right on the borderline of moderately and profoundly mentally reatrded. And he was the greatest person I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. I also admit that I'll correct people who use it as a derogatory term. And I never shy away from describing my brother as mentally reatrded, because he was. (It also helps that he passed on 14 years ago, so that was the term doctors used his entire life.)

    As a disabled adult myself, the one that angers me the most is when people are so consumed by staring at me/my crutches/my wheelchair that they can't function. I've actually had a kid walk into a metal display case, he was so busy staring at me. He was about 12- plenty old enough to know better. In situations like that, my go to phrase? "They're just crutches- I'm not an alien." It shames people rather well, I've discovered.

  2. Sounds like a fantastic way of dealing with it Cassie - I understand that people feel awkward and aren't sure what it is 'okay' for them to say, but staring is never going to go down well! My Smiler spots when people are looking at him, grins at them and waves - his level of understanding means he simply doesn't realise how 'different' he is. People tend to look away or else smile back, so this predominately reinforces his world view that everyone wants to be friends! I'm sorry to hear that you lost your brother, but glad to hear you and he shared such a fantastic relationship - hopefully as time passes attitudes to individuals like your brother and my son will move on, and others will have the chance to realise people are just people, you know?
    Take care Cassie

  3. I just recently fell over the word "retard" for the first time in my life (I mean directly and not by reading someone else's blog or anything) and it really made me angry. I wrote about it here:

    As for your other question, I found out that it does not matter to me who says it. Recently one of my best friends used the German equivalent to "this is just so retarded" and I called her out immediately. I found out that the longer I am into this journey, the more I am willing to let others know that I disapprove of such language. At first she did not get what my problem was but after I explained it to her she agreed that it was a stupid thing to say. I hope she will remember our conversation when she is about to say it the next time and say something else instead.

    1. I think you're right Joy - I think the longer we advocate for our kids or else have whatever experience or knowledge of this world of additional needs / special needs / disabilities the easier we find it to talk about, and the more confidence we have in explaining to others why it is that we find certain words or phrases unacceptable. And I guess we get to practice over the years too! I'm glad your friend was able to see your point Joy - fingers crossed now that the next time she hears it being used by someone else perhaps she will challenge them - we can hope, right?
      Take care Joy
      L x

  4. I'm a strong believer that the language we use to describe our lives (our experiences, the people around us, etc) is of utmost importance. Honesty, integrity, and compassion are all extremely important to me, and as such I aim to use my words to be open about my experiences without being hurtful to others. I commend you for reclaiming the term "retarded" for its most appropriate use in a medical context!

    1. Thank you Amy - it's great to hear that others view language as being as influential as I believe it to be! Words carry so much power!


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