Words are powerful. They allow us to express our thoughts, feelings and opinions.
Words can also hurt. Whoever coined the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” must have led a charmed life.
I approach this topic with some trepidation. I may need to take cover under my Thesaurus for daring to write these words.
As soon as you broach the issue of appropriate language, many people will leap to the defence of the principle of free speech and accuse you of censorship. Some people are weary of what they see as “political correctness gone mad” and resent having their language policed by others.
Then there are those who are the self-appointed guardians of acceptable language, who have very fixed ideas about the appropriate usage of particular words and phrases.
Take the word “autistic” for example, which is how many adults on the spectrum self-identify. It is offensive in some people’s eyes because, they argue, someone should be seen as a person first and foremost. The correct terminology, according to the “person first” viewpoint, is “person with autism”. But some adults on the spectrum regard their autism as being such a fundamental part of who they are that it is comparable to being described as a person with two X chromosomes rather than as a woman. They do not want their autism to be seen as an add-on, an aberration.
Similarly, there are colliding views on whether autism should be described as a “disability” or a “difference”.
Somewhat ironically, the most vitriolic exchanges I have witnessed have been in relation to autism awareness month. Usually it is the sound of the first cuckoo or the sight of the first snowdrop that is meant to herald the approach of spring, but not in our community. Instead, we launch broadsides at each other engage in what must appear to others to be a fairly semantic debate over the difference between “awareness” and “acceptance”.
Those we would seek to educate look on confused, then shrug and walk away. Another opportunity missed, perhaps?
So, by venturing into the arena of words and language, I have the potential to irritate just about everybody. But here goes.
It strikes me (as I watch from behind the sofa, curled up in the foetal position) that we expend a huge amount of time, effort and energy on whether certain words are offensive or not. It can sometimes feel like a dialogue of the deaf (though some might find that phrase itself offensive).
I have challenged people in the past on the use of terms like “retarded”, “moron” and “special” because I felt that, in certain contexts, these words belittle those with a learning disability. The reaction I got was varied. Some people were very gracious in their response and my respect for them deepened. Others were defensive. I have to admit that I have sometimes approached the situation badly. I have made the cardinal mistake of typing when angry or emotional – nowadays I take a metaphorical walk around the block before commenting or, more often than not, just scroll on and try not to let it get to me.
Once, I succeeded in getting a colleague in work to stop referring to someone he disliked as retarded. He started calling them a moron instead. Obviously, I had failed to explain the problem to him.
I think where I have gone wrong in the past is by debating with people whether a particular word is offensive. Pretty much all language connected with disability becomes corrupted over time and gets replaced. Words that are not seen as offensive now may become so.
Also, context is everything. Exactly the same word or phrase could, arguably, be used in two different contexts and be fine in one and not fine in the other.
Maybe it’s not a simple binary proposition – offensive or not offensive. Maybe what is really important here is what is really being said about peoples’ underlying attitudes to those who are different by virtue of their intellect or social functioning.
When such language is used as an insult, that is when words really become a problem. For example, on social media I have seen an awful lot of people – nice people, good people – refer to public figures they dislike as a moron. When I see that, it seems to me that what they are really saying is
“the worst thing I can think to call you is intellectually impaired.”
If the biggest insult they can think to hurl at someone is that they are intellectually or socially disabled, then they are saying that it makes someone lesser. They are, unconsciously, saying that they consider that type of person inferior, sub-human, not worthy of their dignity or respect.
That is what keeps the parents of learning disabled kids awake at 3am – the idea that it is socially acceptable to insult someone by using words that are meant to denote intellectual disability.
That is where the harm lies. That is what creates negative stereotypes. That is what breeds prejudice. That is what causes discrimination and, ultimately, abuse. Steve Silberman’s tour de force, the brilliant “Neurotribes”, is a chilling and heart-wrenching reminder of the horrors that have been inflicted on autistics and the learning disabled in the past. It is downright dangerous to perpetuate negative attitudes to those who are disabled or different.
Am I being over-sensitive? Possibly. But these words are not intended to accuse or shame. They are not directed at anyone in particular. The use of the type of language that I’m talking about is endemic, an accepted part of our culture. I probably used it myself in the past, before I became a special needs parent.
What I am seeking to do is to start a conversation. I want to challenge people to think – really think – about what the words we use say about societal attitudes to those who are different.
Back in the 70s, words were used with regard to ethnicity or sexual orientation that are not generally thought of as acceptable nowadays. Society seems to be further along on that journey. Disability needs to catch up and be treated in the same way.
So, what should we do instead?
My son is classified as non-verbal. He has some speech, just not as much as a typical child of his chronological age. Every word he utters is precious. I say to him “use your words” when he wants a treat. He has to work hard to do that. He has to think carefully before forming and speaking each word.
We could perhaps learn from him.
About Maura Campbell
I am a senior manager in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, having worked there for 28 years, and served on the board of Specialisterne NI for two years. I’m married to Stephen and have a nine-year-old son called Darragh. We live in the rolling countryside of County Down. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in November 2011. I realised I was on the autism spectrum shortly after my son’s ASD diagnosis the previous year.