Sunday, February 03, 2008

Language is Powerful

Lately I've been writing most of my posts about disability over on Disaboom, and inviting you guys to check it out if you've got a moment.

But I've been thinking about a couple of things for awhile, and to be perfectly honest, if I was to write it over there, I'd be preaching to the choir, and it wouldn't change a thing. And since today is my birthday, I'm just going to speak my mind.

If you're not interested, please, please back out. This is going to be a bit of a rant.

Let me just start this off with...

Language is powerful.

A couple of days ago, Little Guy and I were in the grocery store. One of his gifts is that he never forgets a face or a name (once he ran out of Great Clips to greet a substitute teacher he'd had in 3rd grade), and he's so sweet and friendly, that he's pretty unforgettable too. So every time we go into town, he probably stops and talks to 10 or so people.

We ran into a lady who worked as a para-educator in his transitions-skills class for several years, but who had left the school system last year. She'd never been his particular para, so I didn't recognize her. They chatted for a minute, and then she asked ME how he was doing. That should have been a clue. I turned to Little Guy, and said "how you doing?"

He told her about his girlfriend, about his classes, and his part-time job doing data entry. He told her about his artwork. Then he told her that his transitions leader Mrs. P. was going on maternity leave and he was really excited about it.

Mrs. B (the ex-para) said to me, "Oh, so SHE'S pregnant? I hadn't heard."

I assured her that Mrs. P was planning on coming back in the fall. Now for a little back-story---this is the 2nd year that Mrs. P has been the transitions leader. Mr. R, who was our first transitions leader and a wonderful, wonderful man moved to a different position. So I guess Mrs. B only lasted one year under Mrs. P, but I'm only speculating why.

Mrs. B continued with some seriously caustic comments on how she thought the severe needs program was going to hell under the direction of Mrs. P. I was neutral (remember I didn't know this woman from Adam) and said, "well it seems to be working out ok for Little Guy."

And my son chimed in, "I like Mrs. P. She's my friend."

Mrs. B. continued on the subject for a little more, and I managed to extricate us. Obviously it was a personal problem. We said our goodbyes and Little Guy and I went on shopping. A few minutes later, Mrs. B circled around and came up to us.

"This was between you and me, right?"

I looked at her in astonishment. As someone who worked with teens in the transitions class for at least a couple of years, did she really imagine that they were invisible? My son was standing next to me during our entire exchange and soaked in every word. If she didn't intend for him to hear it, why in the world did she open her yap?

Did she expect me to sit him down and tell him to keep it a secret? I don't do that with any of OUR family life, good or bad, no matter WHO he talks to (even if it results in embarrassing moments for us), and I wasn't going to start now.

I said shortly, "I'm certainly not going to say anything, but you can probably bet that your views aren't going to be a secret in the transitions class for very long. Little Guy may have autism, but he can hear and speak quite well, in case you forgot."

Many people made New Year's resolutions this year to quit smoking, or lose weight, or stop fighting with their in-laws, etc.

I made one that I admitted to publically. It was to learn how to make the perfect authentic chili relleno. Egg batter and all.

But to be honest, I had another resolution.

In the past, I've read blogs whose authors liberally use the term "fucktard" (which is a ::koff:: "trendy and cool" term, but is really short for "fucking retard") or just "retard". Some make jokey comments about "short bus riders". If I didn't like their blog that much, I just backed out and never came back.

If it was someone whose blog I liked, I wouldn't comment on those posts. But my heart shriveled a little inside. I dropped a couple of people notes, but I wasn't vigilant about doing it with everyone. And I have to say that the people I dropped notes to were completely receptive and appalled at how their language affected me.

My New Year's resolution is to step up and say something. In every case.

I'm not trying to be the language police. Write your blog however you want. But please be aware that to those of us who have friends or family with cognitive disabilities, the terms "retard" or "fucktard" aren't funny or trendy. You might as well be sporting a white hood and using the "n" word. It's as equally as offensive.

So be on notice. I like to think that I've got a great sense of humor, I'm open-minded, and somewhat intelligent.

But language is powerful. And this stuff hurts me. It really really hurts me. If you read my blog on a regular basis you know that my kids have issues, so why put me on your blogroll or elicit comments if you think that these terms are benign or humorous? They aren't. They're like a stab in the heart.

And for everyone who is reading this. I just ask you to notice and let other writers know that you also feel that language is powerful. If you see it, please take a stand.

I don't think these writers are setting out to be hurtful. They think they're being funny. Please let them know that they aren't. My guy isn't "less", and doesn't deserve to be reduced to some trendy word that the "I'm-so-edgy" have adopted.

Last week, Jacqui at Terrible Palsy linked to a powerful post about tone as well. If you don't feel too beat up by my post, give it a look. It really brought tears to my eyes.




Kim Ayres said...

Language shapes the way we see the world.

If anyone ever doubts this, ask them what they associate with the colour red (blood, Ferrari etc) then ask them what the associate with light-red. Of course we don't have light red in English, we have pink, which is very different in it's associations.

If you see a baby wearing pink, you see a baby girl, you will interact with it as a baby girl, you would be shocked if the parent said it was a wee boy wearing light red.

Language fundamentally shapes how we interact with the world.

Casdok said...

Great post. And well said, language as you so rightly say is powerful and does hurt sometimes.
And yes we should make a stand, as how else are people going 'get it'.

Beth said...

That old childhood chant, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me," is so not true.
I have issues with certain words and phrases, too. I admire your resolution and will attempt to follow suit.

And a Happy Birthday to you!

Mary said...

I volunteer with a lot of high school kids, and they toss around the term "retard" or "retarded" a lot. I admit, it came out of my mouth a time or too in the past.

Then, last March, I was working at a youth retreat with these kids, and one kid was posing as "cool" and edgy for a little improv deal where he had to pretend to boss the adults around. He came up to me and, winking, started in. I tried to hold back my laughter because he's such a funny kid, I couldn't wait to see what he said to me. "Why're you staring at me?" he yelled. I snorted. Then he said "You look like you're retarded. What? Do you have Down Syndrome?"

I yanked his ass, in front of God and everyone, into the next room, which was empty. And then I just started bawling right in front of him. I was so horrified by him saying that, so hurt, so disappointed. One of my best friends had, only 2 months before, given birth to a beautiful boy who has Down Syndrome. And three months before that, another friend from college had a stillborn baby with Downs.

I went OFF on this boy, this 15 year old who was spouting the lingo and trying to be edgy. I showed him edgy. I was ashamed of bawling like a pre-menopausal Realtor, but I let him have it.

Later, he and I just sat and talked about it. He was so mortified. I told him how much it had hurt, and that he was fortunate I knew him and that I could forgive, but there might be people out there he would mortally wound with those words.

And yet, all of us are guilty of using words that we don't think about, that we think are funny or evocative or comical. And if nobody says anything, we continue blithely on.

So thank you for your post. It's a reminder we all need, and I'm so glad you wrote it.

Now go make some chile re-whatevers and have a beautiful birthday!!

Kikilia said...

Well said ATM! Well said.

Let's hope we can all follow your expamples and call folks on their ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Bon anniversaire! All my best wishes!!! xoxo

Anonymous said...

20 years ago on a different continent I thought political correctness was only for people who lacked a sense of humour.

These days, as I get old and crumbly, I appreciate the power of words.

Well said.

BEst wishes

Me said...

Happy Birthday Attila!!!!!
May you have a glorious and blessed year ahead of you.

It's funny that you bring up the subject of language because I have been struggling with this recently. I have a huge problem when people use the word spastic because my old college used to volunteer for the spastic society and it just doesn't sound good.
But the 'short bus' (which I didn't know of till i came to the u.s) and retard - there has been gnawing voice in the back of my head, that this isn't right.
I am soooo glad you wrote this post - thank you.

Jan said...

Great post. Every once in a while, we all can use reminders.

Litzi said...

Hi Attila,
Yes, language is powerful and unfortunately a lot of people don’t stop to think before speaking. “Oops, I did it again” doesn’t cut it. Good manners are more than remembering to say “thanks” when someone gives you a gift. Our deportment should adjust to those we’re around so as to make others feel at ease and comfortable. Spreading gossip or using hurtful, ugly terminology is crass and a reflection of the individual speaking; usually they’re self-absorbed and don’t realize (or care) that the words they’re spewing forth would be better left unsaid. Children may not know better but there’s no excuse for adults to be unmindful of their verbal expressions. Was “Mrs. B” hatched under a turnip truck and just recently introduced to the world of reality??

Happy Birthday! I hope you have a marvelous day…

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday! I hope you have a very special day.

Your post is very powerful and well said. I admire you for not only stating this, but for having the courage to tell people how offensive it is.

You are so right, language is so powerful, words can hurt deeply. People using words, even in jest, refering to a disability, is not funny. I too, will take make it a point to let them know, how hurtful it is. I am ashamed that I have not done it sooner.

Thank you for this eye opening post!


Mrs. G. said...

Happy Birthday. I really am with you on this one. I banned the use of retarded as a joke or insult in my writing classes several years back. I am happy to say that I have never heard the term f*ckt*rd. Anyway, I also threw out gay, as is that shirt you are wearing is so gay or quit being so gay or the weather is so gay. I took a little heat from two parents who insisted I was being too sensitive and a slave to political correctness. I just ignored it, because, honestly, while I like to be as funny as the next guy, why would I want to hang on to a word that could hurt someone's feelings deeply? There are so many other words out there.

Chris H said...

Firstly... HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!
Next, I totally agree that fellow bloggers (hell everyone) should be more careful of what words they use... I get all pissed off and upset when others say hurtful things about OVERWEIGHT people.... maybe they have never been overweight and don't know just how much words do hurt, and can CONTRIUBUTE to a person's staying overweight... ooo I'm ranting.... just know that I agree that people should be more careful.

Litzi said...

Hi Attila,
Here's a little song for your special day...

Happy Birthday


Anonymous said...


First let me wish you a Happy Birthday! (We're only 3 days apart!)

Never did like the word "retard" in all its various forms. Totally offensive, AFAIC. Though my immediate recollection wasn't necessarily of that term used as a schoolroom taunt or anything, but rather, of a time when my family was telling the story of what happened when I was born too early and seriously ill; the commentary was something like, "They were all telling me you'd be retarded...". Of course, it was the presumptuousness of supposedly educated doctors that I found completely offensive, particularly years later as a person of more than reasonable intelligence who grew up to prove them totally wrong. So yeah, any form of that word gets on my last nerve.

Some people just don't get it, do they?

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday!! Great POST !!! We've printed it and put it up at my husbands work :)

My birthday is tomorrow!! So happy happy birthday fellow aquarian


Jennifer McKenzie said...


I have to say that I've see that word and didn't think twice about it (didn't make the connection. A little dim I'll admit).
Language IS powerful. As an author, I see it very clearly.
I've been trying to remove the word "Stupid" from my own vocabulary. (Caught myself saying it to my six year old. "What? Are you stupid?" Had to apologize)
It's not easy to kill the words that creep into our language.

Tarantismo said...

Thank you and Happy Birthday

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday ATM!

Language is powerful, but sometimes, I think that we do ourselves a disservice by taking it too far (hence the crap that we hear about being PC). I read on the web today that I shouldn't be using the term neurotypical to describe my children who are off-this-planet-crazy but apparently have normal brains. Please - give me a break - someone give me a list of terms I can use so I know the rules.

As you know, the "s" and "r" words really get to me. I had a shop assistant use the "r" word recently to describe how bad it was that they didn't stock an item that I wanted. I had to walk away. But I should have stopped and said something. I promise to say things in future too.


Anonymous said...

Happy birthday!
And I don't feel beat up, I feel blessedly reminded.

Sharon McDaid said...

Happy Birthday!

You did right, and you have spoken well here. I've resolved to speak out about these words too.

phlegmfatale said...

Gosh, I know I've said things like that on my blog, so I humbly apologize. I suppose in my mind I've perhaps mis-perceived that autism was not retardation ( I mean, I don't remember a set definition, and maybe it's something I haven't thought about, ever?) but that autism indicated someone with the same (or perhaps greater) capabilities as other folks, but just with different hurdles and pathways to expression. I've not meant to be mean or hurtful. Thanks for posting this. I'll try to be more sensitive.

Angela said...

Happy Birthday

My husband's sister has mental retardation. For people who know noone with a particular disability seem not to connect the word with the actual meaning.
I get so sick of people using the term blind when they are talking and actually not mean blind or minimize my disability like it is nothing. Similarly to the way some people use the word retarded. Then when people say they are the same as me because they have bad vision when they take off their glasses. They should try breaking their glasses and live like me for even a day. Grrrr…
But tonight I am happy so I am not going to make this into a rant.

Unknown said...


I now find myself wondering if I've ever said anything like that. Well, I certainly have never used the word "fucktard" in my life, because that's just stupid. But I don't think people with mental disabilities should be degraded like that.

Special K said...

Happy (belated) Birthday, Attila!

I really don't have any strong feelings about the words you find offensive, but I don't use them, just the same. Not because I'm afraid of offending someone, but more because I don't find them particularly clever, funny, or useful as descriptors. And I'm someone who throws around the word "dicksmack" pretty liberally.

Personally, I think words have as much power as we're prepared to give them. This goes a long way to explaining the phenomenon of disenfranchised groups like gays and ethnic minorities (for example) reclaiming words like fag, queer, dyke, nigger, spic, wetback, rag-head, etc. and making them their own. It takes the steam out of the word, and empowers the person it's supposed to describe. Suddenly, a redneck asshammer shouting nigger isn't the one with power; he's only now someone inviting for himself a righteous shit-kicking.

Maybe the reason your son and kids like him haven't bothered to do the same is because they've got too much class to really give a shit. And good on 'em. :)

Brenda said...

Happy belated birthday!! Didja get cake?

Each and every one of us could take lessons from your guys. Great post Miz ATM!

Queen of the Mayhem said...

You make an excellent post. I don't make a habit of using the F bomb...but I have certainly never thought of that term in that manner!

Happy birthday and I will be certain that I do not make that same, albeit unintentional, mistake!

stinkypaw said...

The times I truly got hurt were often by something someone had said... I'm so not trendy... I've read those terms but haven't used them... Good post and we should always say what's on our chest (I always do). Good for you.

BTW, check out your emails or maybe your delete folder, had sent you an ecard but it hasn't been opened yet...

Off to read that other post.

kristi said...

Yes, some coworkers have said and done things that I found offensive and I told them so!

Joe said...

Happy Belated!

Michelle Flaherty said...

I wish Little Guy could teach me how to remember peoples' names. I usually forget two minutes after walking away from the person. I always keep my fingers crossed that I don't run into someone who's name slips my mind when I'm with another person because I still haven't mastered how to get out of that kind of awkward situation!

Kris said...

I have probably used the word "retard" but in such a way as "well that's just retarded". I never mean it to hurt anyone's feelings, but it wasn't until a former co-worker actually asked me to stop saying it that I took notice.

Without having ever said it to you, I apologize, cause I now know the power of my words to hurt, and I would never want to cause anyone pain.

I can't promise that it won't come up again in my blog, but I will make an effort to refrain from using it.

BTW - Happy Belated!

Anonymous said...

I came here by way of a "heads up" at Mrs. G's. Thank you. I do this, too. I also do it when people make racist comments about our multi-cultural school ... and they talk about "those" children. I look point blank and say to them, "Don't you mean OUR children? It is OUR school. Saying "those" would be blantantly racist. I'm sure you meant "OUR." It's just a little bit fun to watch them squirm.

Claire B. said...

I'm here from Mrs. G's place, too, and I want to thank you for this post. I work with young people, and throwing around "that's just retarded" is commonplace. I know they are not deliberately mocking or making fun of developmentally challenged people--they are using a word that is hurtful because they think it's cool and they think it's okay. And by using that word, they are mocking, they are making fun, they are being insensitive, crass, and mean. I have done it too, and I know better.

I am sorry for it, it won't happen again, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to come clean and grow up and think about the power of my words. You've done a great service with this post!

Anonymous said...

Language is powerful. You are so right. This post was a great reminder of that.

Green-Eyed Momster said...

Please forgive my ignorance. This post changed the way I see others and how I regard their feelings. I am a more considerate person because of you and posts like this!

Grim Reality Girl said...

Thanks for linking back to this post. I cringe often because I am awed by the power of language. I believe we can make this world a better place by lifting ourselves and others out of ignorance. This post is wonderful because it breaks it down so all can understand the impact of their words. My kids and I recently talked about the r word because I'd overheard it at the park. Thank you for making me realize that these talks are not me being oversensitive.

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