Friday, September 7, 2007

More than Words

Any other normies find themselves saying, if only in their heads, "that's retarded" or "that's lame" all the time?

That goes to show just how deep - and acceptable - disablism is in our society.

I just caught myself silently saying these two phrases in response to something I didn't like, and after reading some of the posts from Blogging Against Disablism Day in May, I realized what was going on.

I think I first said to myself "that's retarded" and noticed that it was a disablist slur, so I wanted to use something milder. So I resorted to "that's lame," which I then realized is another disablist slur!

I always make a point these days not to say "that's gay," as I was taught when I was a teenager that homophobic slurs are not acceptable. I had a lesbian, now transgendered, cousin, so the issue was a bit closer to home than, say, questions of physical or cognitive disability. But I probably would have been taught that "gay" as an insult is wrong anyway, just via exposure through the college atmosphere and having gay teachers, classmates, and even a lesbian roommate.

However, nobody has ever taught me the same about "that's retarded," "that's lame," or any other disability-oriented slurs. Well, maybe I had a little bit of awareness that "retarded" was a bit controversial as a pejorative, based on a seventh-grade health class guest speaker talking about mental retardation, but people around me kept using it with less shame or self-awareness than they used "gay." And I never was taught by anyone in the least that "lame" was a prejudiced pejorative that should be avoided.

In fact, I'd practically forgotten that "lame" was a reference to physical disability at all. Its use as a generic negative term is far more common these days...and even as a term for disability it's more often applied to animals. (That's probably because newer and more politically correct words existed to refer to humans with mobility impairments.)

Apparently, prejudice against the disabled is so ancient and acceptable that the insulting meaning of "lame" is not listed in my dictionary (published in 1997) as an offensive or controversial term.

I have mixed feelings about political correctness, given that being overly strict about words has seemed to do little or nothing to change the attitudes that spawned the words in many cases. But I think really reflecting on the words we use and where they come from, if we're so interested, can be part of - but not the exclusive form of - a person's education about the prejudices of self and society. Awareness of words may not help much if you're uninterested in examining and changing attitudes, but if you are interested in examining and changing attitudes, it might be interesting to do.

If "that's lame" and "that's retarded" are ever phased out of our vocabulary, and society's attitudes don't change much, we'll know that the use of softer words was a failure in raising awareness and changing attitudes, when these forbidden insults are replaced by "that's mobility impaired" and "that's intellectually disabled." It would be nice to see a different outcome for once, but that's going to take more than words. It's going to take the total re-humanization of disability. It's going to take seeing disability as normal, as a natural and acceptable part of human diversity. So what if someone needs a wheelchair or help looking after the small things of daily life or both? They can still be people just as much as anyone. (And sometimes we normies aren't particularly good at being people.)

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