Thursday, January 10, 2013

The R Word and other reasons to watch your mouth

This last week, I saw two posts on facebook using the "R" word (“retard”) in a slangy insulting way. One was a poster which said something like “if you believe this than you are a “R” who should not…” and the other (from a woman who should know better as she works in the field of special education) “am I the only “R” who did not know this”. Well, I was offended at the use, even once and feel compelled to address this issue. I do not object to the use of the word “retard” in its official meaning as in “The use of cold water retards the growth of yeast”. That is one of the word’s meanings. But to use it as short for mentally retarded to insult someone is offensive to the addressee and even more so to a whole class of people that do not warrant the comparison with these users.

"Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is an expression often thrown at verbal bullies to somehow lesson the pain. We all know that it is not true. While sticks and stones may break a bone, which will heal in 6-8 weeks, words cut to the heart and create deep wounds that hurt much more and take much longer to heal, if they ever do.

Sometimes, this use of words is intentional, direct and meant to be hurtful. Many an overweight child can tell you that being called names, such as “fatty” or hearing jokes about their size from bullies or family members (the unkindest cut of all) is a hurt that does not go away even when they have grown up into their weight and especially, when they are continually struggling with their weight. Think of Monica from Friends, who, as a waif-like adult still saw herself as the large teenager she had been and remained  insecure in every relationship she had. 

Other times, there is no specific target, but uncontrollable flaws are made fun of in a general sense. Comedians often exploit speech defects, such as stutters and lisps, in their routines to get a laugh, and people laugh. Can you imagine being someone who stutters, who struggles to communicate and then hears one of these routines.  It hurts. Even if you laugh along, somewhere in your heart, you feel less confident, less human than others. You are less likely to try to speak, because, after all, your speech is a joke. 

In the case above, a word that has a legitimate diagnostic use, is turned into an insult, which indicates that less is thought of the people for whom the word has been designed. The word “spastic” describes a specific neuromotor condition wherein the muscles are do not relax and remain contracted. Movement is difficult without control of the muscles. To take the term, and its variant “spaz”, to describe someone who has done some clumsy thing, such as spilling something ( or even worse, something intentionally clumsy such as bumping you) indicates that it is bad to be spastic, that spastic people do clumsy things on purpose. Being spastic is not intentional and it is insulting to insinuate that it is the same thing.

 Words describing race, gender, sexual orientation and physical or mental challenges have been used with derogatory meanings. Then, we seek new words to replace the old, and the same process happens again. Did you know that the words “idiot” and “imbecile” were designed to describe levels of mental delay, in order to provide appropriate programming. They became so insulting that they had to be abandoned and later replaced with educable and trainable mental retardation.  Now the same has happened to the “R” word. 
People who are mentally challenged are people. They are unique, full people with feelings and understanding.  They go through life with many of the same challenges that everyone has and a few more. They do not need extra pressure from people who do not know them.  They and their families do not need the extra insult that has been given to these words by their careless use. 

Some people suggest that we do not use labels at all to distinguish one person from another. That is unrealistic. First of all, we are not all the same and would always describe our differences. But we need to learn that these differences are not better or worse, just different. Secondly, we need some descriptive information to provide the most appropriate help to people. This includes diagnostic categories which are needed for justifying funding for special programs.  We need these words to be descriptive and not emotionally loaded.

I bring this up because it is well known that children learn how to communicate by what they hear. If you do not respect the value of words, your children will not learn to respect them. If children hear adults saying these things, then they will too. Young children do not understand all the implications of words. That is what they are learning. Adults should understand what they are doing, although, when they casually use offensive words (and we include the “n” word and the “f” word along with the “r” word here), I am fairly sure they are not thinking. Remember that nobody is perfect and there is probably something about you that could be turned into an insult to others. Think about how you would feel. Train yourself to speak respectfully, so your children can learn to speak respectfully, please.

 These two posters have been widely circulated on the internet but they illustrate the point I am trying to make. Thank you to the creators. 

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