“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The importance of language

I have been thinking about the importance of the language we as professionals (those of you who are professionals) or those of us who are just in the know (those of you who are in the know) in our interactions with persons with cognitive disabilities. We can contribute to the devaluing of people, or we can assist in minimizing their devaluation simply by the language we use.

I have a particular responsibility as a trainer of teachers of students with severe disabilities. I am in the sometimes unenviable position of training community experts (teachers). I love that opportunity, but there is great responsibility that comes with that opportunity. I have to be very circumscribed in the language I use, because it will be copied by the community experts I am training, and then modeled for the community. I am therefore very, VERY sensitive about issues of language.

Don't get me wrong, I am constantly joking with my friends with cognitive disabilities. We call each other turkey or old goat. It was particularly fun when I learned the ASL sign for turkey cause now I can tease friends across the sanctuary during church! We tease, but I am careful to tease in a way that does not demean, or particularly in a way that might be misconstrued as being a jab at their disability. If I err, which I sometimes do, I am quick to apologize to the person and to those listening.

I personally also do like to use the phrase, "people with___" when necessary to describe a person with a disability. There are those who reject the phrase as being politically correct, or not being a correct use of the English language. However, I embrace the phrase, I embrace its cumbersome nature, because it once again reminds both me and those listening that I see the person I am speaking about by using the phrase as a person first (the reason for the phrasing).

We also don't want to give people permission to use demeaning language by laughing at their jokes, however well intentioned, or not calling them on their use of language. I remember once getting into a cab in the pouring rain. I was soaked. When I got into the cab, I said to the driver, "I am sorry I am getting your seat all wet." He responded, "Well at least you aren't a (racial slur)." I responded, "Pull the car over I'm getting out" and did so. Perhaps in the future he would not be so quick to assume racist comments were acceptable.

However we do similar kinds of things in our language about disability. In the previous entry, I pointed out a video where the speaker explains the use of the word "retard" or the phrase, "don't be retarded" as derogatory phrases basically equivalent to ethnic slurs. However, it can be much more subtle than that. Jokes about about low intelligence can be subtle, but should not be tolerated. But if we don't speak up about such uses of language, we can be sure that no one else will. We are the experts. We should be setting the tone. If nothing else, negative language will be curtailed or at least apologized for in our presence, and both the speaker and listeners will be exposed to the potentially damaging nature of language.

Finally, language may be considered "juvenile" but must be taken with the seriousness with which it is communicated. I had a delightful time riding home from the beach this past Sunday with a friend. He is a man about 45, but his language is limited to phrases like "Santa Claus" or "Christmas" or "toys" or "cars" or "candy" or "comer" or "Ho Ho Ho" or "Christmas tree." Obviously he is someone who particularly enjoys the Christmas holidays based on his language alone. As I sat with him I had a 20 minute discussion which centered on these phrases, but was as adult as possible. I didn't treat his discussion of "toys" as cute or juvenile. I discussed toys with him in the same manner I would discuss the Lakers with another friend, or music with another friend. It was like I attempted to validate his language choice by my interest, my participation in his language and the seriousness with which he discussed the subject. He was very intent on cars for example, and would literally grab my face to turn it toward him to tell me the word cars, and he wasn't laughing. My response was to have that discussion with him in a respectful adult manner. I am sure people around me thought the whole thing a bit ridiculous, but at the same time, he had my undivided attention. If someone tried to interject something, I would respond, "Excuse me I am talking to Eddie." The importance of his perspective, his preferences, his opinions was validated by my interest.


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