I know you don’t use this word. But I bet a million bucks that you hear it or the shortened version “tard” as in “libtard” or other anti lovely terms. We have to stomp it out. Nip it in the bud. The second you hear this word or see it in writing- STAND UP. The offending person will automatically say “I didn’t mean that.” SO you can explain. Mental retardation was a medical term. It became pejorative and ugly when people began using it to be funny/hurtful to describe anyone making a dumb mistake or anyone being stupid. So take Mim for instance. She has an intellectual disability formerly referred to as mental retardation. Let’s say your friend cheats on his exam and is caught be the teacher with his phone. You call him the R word. And everyone laughs. That means that you think Mim is so stupid that she would cheat on tests and get caught. You are making blanket ignorant statements about everyone in the disability community by describing your friend as the R word. You were trying to come up with an insult and you used a word connected to the history of a marginalized community. You do not want to do that.
This is the complete every word in the book guide made by the National Center on Disability and Journalism. It is made for journalists and was revised in 2018. It is comprehensive and easy to understand.
This site from Colorado State University has less words than the one for journalists, but I find it helpful in terms of the “less appropriate” and “more appropriate”. The authors point out that many of these words are commonly used and yet that does not make them a positive means of communication.
Let’s go to the horses mouth. What do people in the disability community want us to say when communicating about them? And all of the site’s included suggested that when in doubt, ask the person to whom you are writing or speaking about their preferred language. This article by Natasha Alvarez in Audacity Magazine 2018 is full of her honest insight.
We can start to feel overwhelmed by the suggestions and corrections we need to make in our language. Honestly, I appreciate any attempt. It’s like going to Spain and attempting to speak your broken Spanish is better than just speaking English. Ask for clarification. Ask for help. “Como se dice _______.” is so appreciated.
Lots of these inappropriate terms are habits for many of us. Habits worth breaking. For instance, a bathroom and a parking space cannot be handicapped. The bathroom and the parking space are accessible. When I use the word accessible, it has clearer meaning and does not focus on what a person cannot do but focuses on what is possible and legal.
(If you ever use an accessible parking space because you have a placket for someone else, I do not understand you. But I will save that hell of a topic for another day.)
Writing this post came from a friend asking me about being an ally for people with disabilities in light of the work that is currently shining a light on police brutality. I cherish her reaching out. I cherish her growth and humility.
Black Lives Matter.
Black Disabled Lives Matter.
We are reaching into our souls and seeking to remedy disharmony. Who in humanity is being brutalized disproportionately? Black people.
And Black people with disabilities.
People with disabilities are often the last to be included in the topic of discrimination and reform. Inclusion in school classrooms is seen as something to qualify for instead of a birthright. Why is it that people realize no one can be excluded due to their color of skin but it is acceptable to exclude children based on their disability? The federal law insures desegregation and inclusion but the language is blurred by many professionals to not include people who they deem are not ready or not capable all while claiming it is in the best interest of the child.
In school meetings for Mim teachers have asked Mim what she prefers to justify their placement in a segregated setting. That is like asking a child Do you want to be in a classroom with three of your friends who are similar to you with a teacher who has relaxed the standards, plays more games and has more recess or do you want to be in a class of 25 peers doing work above your level with little modification for your needs and very little time for play? How is this a fair choice? Did Ruby Bridges want to be guarded by officers and sent to a school with strangers? No. I doubt she did but life is full of people and challenges and if I don’t want Mim in a van to a job sorting coat hangers paid sub minimum wage, I have to fight. I have to make the world and schools include Mim. I have to make the choices fair. She should be with her peers and she should have access to what her peers are learning and she should have access to friends and role models. All children should learn through play and be challenged by glorious and full opportunities. All children should have relaxed positive child centered environments and teachers where they feel an integral member of the community. Inclusion cannot be just a word. Community building can’t just be for children above a certain IQ. Separate is not equal. Fundamental change inside the classroom has to happen to make the classroom a learning experience for all.
(Many articles can be found on discrimination of students with disabilities, unlawful suspension of children with disabilities, a preponderance of suspension of black children and black children with disabilities vs. white students- this one is reporting on Sacramento CA.)
With this recent focus on justice, I was reminded that a Facebook group deleted one of my posts earlier this year about the use of the term “sped”or “sped kids” in referring to children with disabilities. My post was deleted without explanation but apparently it was believed I was being too critical or antagonistic of adults. I can be a loud advocate. I can be a passionate advocate. I aim to be a truth teller. I aim to listen, learn and do better. I hope that insisting on justice for the Black community, we remember all marginalized groups. We have seen the LGTBTQ community focusing on Black Lives Matter during pride week. We have seen beauty in marginalized people lifting up other marginalized people. To believe that we won’t run out of pieces of pie is antithetical to Trump and his voters. We do not have to focus on America. We do not have to focus on money for the rich. There is enough to share. Humans are resources. Humans are amazing generators and creators. We can help each other. We can champion each other. The Black community has been doing this forever. White people kept making rules and grabbing power to benefit white people and anyone else was gathered up and included in the category of People of Color. When we all do better, we all do better. (My favorite motto is a bumper sticker on my car.) The Obamas produced a movie called Crip Camp that focused on the rights of those with disabilities and it showed a tremendous partnership where the Black Panthers were allies of the Disability Rights Movement.
Sped is another derogatory term. We can’t use insults to refer to any humans, especially students we love dearly. These definitions are from urban dictionary.
Unlearning old habits will be hard. Mistakes will be made. I haven’t even talked about the use of the world autism- which has varied opinions on vocabulary and meaning. Let’s continue these conversations. Let’s keep improving as human and as a civilization. Peace out and love to you all. I am probably preaching to the choir. But spread the word.
And to my friend who asked how do I become a better ally for people with disabilities, I love you. I will never ever forget your friendship and fortitude. I am lucky to know you.