Monday, 24 February 2014

the r word {communication & disability}

Communication is about so much more than speech, which can be seen particularly clearly when considering the impact of a wide range of disabilities.  Within the sphere of disability non verbal communication can be incredibly expressive.  The facial expression, the body language, the eye contact (or lack thereof) - all of these feed into the communication that is taking place, and influence how the interaction develops - or doesn't.  The words we choose to use alongside our non verbal cues can carry so much power.  So much ignorance.  So much prejudice.  So much pain.  Simple words can slice so deeply, and the scars they leave can last forever.

But this post is more focused than that - this post is about one word.


Over the last few years the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign has focused on trying to reduce use of the word retard, by educating the general public about why this word is unacceptable.  By defining retard as hate language it is hoped that it will pass out of common usage in the way the n word has, perhaps to be referred to in the same slightly abstract way - after all, there are a lot of words which begin with the letter n, but most people do know what you mean!

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Retard started out being used as medical jargon - retarded growth and the like, not only the developmental retardation it is now so closely associated with.  Over time it came to be used as an insult, along with spastic, and while professionals tend to prefer terms such as development delay or intellectual disability or the more commonly used learning disability.  More ... ahem ... let's say 'traditional' professionals do still use mental retardation (or developmental retardation), but as time passes these are the ones gradually retiring...

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Smiler was ten days old when a professional first tagged him as mentally retarded - I remember catching my breath - why would this man call my baby names?  The truth of it was, of course, that he was not calling him names - not as far as he was concerned.  But what his mouth said and what my ears heard were two entirely different things.  Now, 12 years later, I've used the phrase myself - for shock value.

*Before you judge, please read the rest.  If you still want to shout at me, well - that's what the comments box at the end of the post is for!*

In my experience, the quickest (and apparently most effective) way to shut up somebody casually telling their friend you're such a retard, or informing the world that that film is retarded is by pointing out that my son in fact is severely mentally retarded, and would they like to meet him.  In case you're wondering, I've never held a wine glass up to the wall to try and listen in on the neighbours so I can castigate their language use (waste of wine for a start); nor have I spent time hiding under tables to eavesdrop on people enjoying their lunch.  I don't butt in, but if people call across rooms, or stand in a queue shouting into their mobile - well, I consider that an invitation to the conversation.

It's kind of a power thing I think - using the phrasing it it's literal medical sense - the original speaker tends to stutter out an apology followed by something along the lines of 'I didn't mean it like that' or 'I just didn't think', which I'm perfectly willing to believe ... but that isn't the point.  It's the thoughtlessness that is the point.  So then I can get all superior by pointing out that while they may not have 'meant it like that'', I don't give a damn how they meant it,  but if they feel embarrassed about it having been overheard by someone who takes offence at it, the only way to avoid this in future is to stop using the word.  Obviously I don't know whether they do stop it or not, but it makes me feel better, and I like to think that maybe the vision of a fairly calm but definitely insistent middle aged mum might float through their mind when they say it in future, or heard it said.

*note to self : find out if 34 is officially middle-aged.  If so, buy sports car and book a cruise.*
*additional note to self : find out if cruises are the preferred past time of middle-aged individuals, or only those who have retired*
*final note to self : ignore additional note to self above, as I am already retired.  The cruise is back on*

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So, what do you think?  Should we all get over it?  Is this political correctness gone too far?  Do you use the r word, either casually or in it's original medical sense?  If you have a disability, are there words you avoid using, or words you've asked others not to use?

This is the first in a series of posts relating to communication and disability - please do share your thoughts, either in the comments or by email or on twitter (I'm @abstractLucas) - I'd love to hear from you.  If you put your email address in that box at the top on the right, the next post will appear in your inbox when its posted, as if by magic ... probably!

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  1. Personally I think the use of medical terminology in a derogatory way is the crux of the matter. If the medical community wanted to use the word "retarded" it would be ok IMO if it were clearly defined and specific. Unfortunately it became too generic in nature and was sometimes used to describe children with apparent delays from which they caught up. I feel "delayed" is far more appropriate. It is also far less "loaded" and far less likely to be corrupted.
    Of course beyond the use of "just" a word is the motive for doing so, and suggesting that someone with a disability is in any way less of a person is totally unacceptable. It is this underlying, odious and discriminatory attitude which needs to change. It is changing, but not fast enough maybe.

    1. I agree Kate. Unfortunately words which have a clear medical often become corrupted in this way, which means they then carry all the negarttivity and value judgements back to the medical world, so in order to try and avoid the reactions they then get from the general public at the point of diagnosis (for example), the medical profession feelsd under pressure to cease using it and come up with a new word or title - consider the word spastic to illustrate.
      As you point out, beyond the words lie the reasons for choosing them, and until this has changed language will continue to be appropriated and used in negative ways.
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to write such a well considered comment Kate, it's really interesting to hear your thoughts.
      Take care


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