“That Word”

Yoni and Gabi

Yoni and Gabi

I recently attended a birthday party for a friend. There were sixteen people at the party — I knew four of them — one’s a very close friend of mine. We were all sitting down to eat when somebody used the word retard.

Of course, I’d heard it, but seeing as the guests were mostly strangers to me, I decided to just move on, and let it go. I convinced myself that this person — this girl-who-used-the-word — didn’t know that she was misusing “that word,” that is, using it in a negative way. My close friend, knowing how I feel about people using “that word” (and I truly believe my friend didn’t mean any harm by it, and did not expect the girl-who-used-the-word to react as she did), jokingly said,

“Yoni, did you hear that?”

I tried to laugh it off instead of starting a debate on why we should or shouldn’t say “that word.”

Which did not happen.

Instead, the girl-who-used-the-word, turned around and asked me why “that word” bothered me?

In an attempt to avoid a major disagreement, I kindly explained that the word “retard” bothers me, and would she use another word. Like many people my age, (I’m 23), she thought that it would be amusing to keep using “that word” to get a rise out of me. I continued to explain that I personally don’t like getting into this kind of conversation with random people that I don’t know, let alone at a friend’s birthday party. Just as in previous situations I have been in, where I’ve heard people justifying the use of the word “retard,” the girl-who-used-the-word began sharing her thoughts;

“But I don’t mean anything bad by it,”

“It’s just a word,”

“It bothers you because you work in that field,”

The last one is what really hit home for me, and I was ready to burst but kept my cool. I wanted to say, “No, it bothers me because I have a sister who’s retarded,” just to see what her reaction would be, and what would be the next excuse she would have for using “that word.” Instead, I resisted, and (slightly more aggressively than before) explained that I have my own personal reasons for my reaction when people use “that word,” and could she please respect my decisions.

At this point, I realized I wasn’t going to change this girl-who-used-the-word’s mind, and that in the process had put myself into an agitated mood.

When I find myself in a situation like this, I like to use a technique that I practice when working with kids. The main point of the technique is to bring the conversation back to something to which both parties can relate — individually and together. I asked the girl-who-used-the-word to respect me as a person, and just use a different word. Just like when you ask someone on the bus not to put their feet on the seat. They might not think it’s a big deal, or see why it would bother someone, but usually out of respect for the other person they’ll take their feet down. People in any setting should be able to have safe conversations with each other — to learn and discuss topics that spur different opinions, and in this case, not put the other party guests in an uncomfortable situation.

I ended up leaving that party feeling very irritated. It wasn’t just because “that word” was used, but that I was put into a compromising position — either abandon my principles or come off as an opinionated person who went off on a rant, lecturing someone at a birthday party.

When I mention “that word,” I am not just talking about the word “retard,” or “retarded.” It’s about so much more than that.

Many of us, myself included (my mother can attest to that), take very little time to consider how our words can hurt someone — with or without our knowledge. Whether it be racially, anti-Semitic, sexist or just a mean word, we should all just take a second, and before we open our mouths, try to respect the people around us.  Like my mother always says, “think before you speak!”

Yoni is the Teen Leadership Coordinator for Shutaf. 

Let’s Not Make People Afraid To Open Their Mouths

From the New York Jewish Week’s blog, The New Normal: Blogging Disability, April 11, 2013.

Special needs. Developmental delay. Cognitive disabilities. Disabled. Learning disabilities. Retarded. Autistic. Mentally challenged. Slow. Special. Blessed. Pure of soul.

Language is power. From the first words we form as toddlers, making our needs and wants known, to the daily information we share online, from 140 characters on Twitter and beyond, language has meaning and weight. The better we can say it, the stronger our positions, our beliefs and our passions, whatever they are.

Language can also constrict, preventing the honest sharing of our thoughts, especially if we fear putting our collective feet in our mouths. In these politically-correct times, language has become increasingly dangerous, as descriptive terms and labels change at a pace that many find hard to keep up with, let alone understand and accept. Heeding the dictates of the language police is not only recommended, it’s required, or you’ll suffer the ignominy of using the wrong term.

A colleague who’s involved in the development of camp programs for children and teens with disabilities in the United States had an uncomfortable moment recently when she used the wrong term in a discussion about people with disabilities. After being chastised by a fellow advocate, she commented to me, “I want to use the right language, of course, but I don’t want to feel like I can’t speak for fear that I’ll offend.” Even worse, as a parent of children who do not have disabilities, she already felt tentative when talking about it, wondering if she had the right to express her opinion. Now, she’s just uncomfortable, worried that she’ll do it again, use incorrect language.

I know how she feels. Recently, I was summarily informed by a colleague that there had been a language shift in the field of disability. “Didn’t you know, that it’s people with disabilities now, and not people with special needs?” she told me. I adjusted my speech right away, but was put off the more I thought about it. What word is truly right, and who gets to decide what’s in vogue or not?

Ever since my youngest, who has Down syndrome and autism, was born, I’ve felt the need to be blunt about how I talk the talk of disability, especially when it comes to developmental issues. Take the word retarded. According to my Google dictionary, retarded means “less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for one’s age.” Okay, check. I also like this use of the word retard, when referring to bread baking as in “to slow down…[as in] a long, cool rest for the dough, during which it develops flavor and gluten.” Interesting. Needs time to develop in all sorts of ways. Checkmate.

Point is, “retarded” isn’t an evil term, it’s a descriptive term. When used pejoratively, of course, it isn’t acceptable, any more than “Mongoloid” was when it was used to describe the somewhat Asian features of kids with Down syndrome, or “Spick” for a person of Latino background. And I’m not arguing that language shouldn’t change along with attitudes towards inclusion and people with disabilities in general. What I am arguing is just this: If we’re looking to break down barriers, let’s not raise new ones by fiddling with the language so much that people are afraid to open their mouths.

When I talked about the new terminology with my Shutaf co-founder and colleague, Miriam, she commented that she preferred special needs to disability. Special needs, she argued, is what it’s about, that is, “the unique issues faced by each person,” as opposed to the perhaps harsher term, disability. She added that special needs also refers to the family as well, dealing as they do with the member of the family who has a specific issue. Or, in the words of my husband, “families of children with special needs, have special needs.” They’re not disabled by disability, but they are rendered special by the experience. It’s got a nice ring, I think.

With that in mind, I hereby suggest that we react more sensitively when we hear a term that we consider questionable when it comes to disability. Consider that the person who used the term may actually feel a connection to that word. Or they may not realize that the language has shifted. Or they might not know that the word is no longer in style, or that using it suggests they are insensitive or ill-informed.

Education and engagement will go a long way towards bringing us all together, while challenging all of us as a community of caring individuals to step up and use our words wisely, just like we encourage a toddler to ask and not point. Language is the point of contact. But tone and the desire to learn is more important than what’s the newest flavor in the disability lexicon. That’s how we’ll create a more inclusive and welcoming society in which well-intentioned people feel at home no matter what language they use.