Homeintellectual disabilitiesWords Are More Powerful Than You Think

(For those readers who are sensitive to it, there’s a little strong language in this entry to help illustrate my point.)

I don’t pay much attention to the local news. I keep up with what’s going on in the world through a variety of media, but big news outlets are too biased to give any sort of fair coverage. However, I do sometimes take a peek at it, if only to see what the forecast’s like.

Last night, I caught a snippet about the Republican debates. Something a candidate said had me seeing red. “We can’t afford to be politically correct all the time.” He said this in relation to how he refers to women, in response to the female moderator’s question. (You probably know who said it.)

What I and many others, heard was, “I don’t respect a half of the American population.” Add his racist comments towards people from Latin America, and he demonstrates a lack of respect for over half of potential voters. If you can’t bother to speak with a civil tongue, you have no place representing my country.

I’ve been seeing quotes and graphics popping up everywhere about kindness and the power of words all day today. One argument I’ve seen against the basic principle of speaking with respect is, “I can’t even use the word retarded when I think something is stupid!”

Most people don’t seem to realize that “Mental Retardation” was a real medical diagnosis up until the DSM-V came out. Because so many people are stuck in ableist speech patterns – intentionally or not – they don’t realize just how hurtful they’re being, or how powerful turning a disability label into a slur is.

In part because of that stubborn linguistic ableism, mental retardation has been renamed “intellectual disability”. This isn’t the first time that’s happened in the history of this disability.

The words “idiot” and “moron” also used to be official diagnosis for this brand of neurodiversity. Now, they’ve been downgraded into simple insults, but historically speaking, they were used to use the principle of disability as a weapon.

Remember, this didn’t happen once in the distant past. It happened several times, the most recent of which was in 2013.

Think about it.

A medical diagnosis was turned into an insult so prevalent that it helped make the actual diagnosis obsolete. I don’t know what effect that had on therapy, but I do know just how painful it is for many who carry that label.

This particular weaponization of a label actually had a hand in forcing the medical profession to change its language.

That’s pretty powerful.

via WikiMedia Commons

This topic hits me on an especially personal level because I’m a dyslexic woman with Jewish heritage.

Dyslexia and Intellectual Disability are extremely different, but when it comes to social norms, they’re treated similarly. Because I struggle with certain things, ignorant people see me as less intelligent than everyone else. I’ve never been called ‘retarded’ to my face, but I have been called ‘stupid’ and treated accordingly more times than I want to think about.

Women are another group which is routinely linguistically reviled. “You throw like a GIRL!” “God, you’re such a BITCH.” “Stop being such a CUNT.” The list goes on and on. The worst thing you can call a man is a woman. Our genitals are used as insults. Even female dogs are dragged into it, because they fiercely protect their puppies when threatened.

When a woman stands up for herself in any shape or form, she’s automatically a bitch. When a man speaks up in such a way someone else doesn’t approve of, usually on behalf of someone else, he’s a little bitch. There’s no winning.

I bring up my Jewish heritage, because there’s still the idea floating around that Jewish people are greedy by nature and want nothing more than to cheat others. “He jewed me,” is used when someone cheats you out of something. “She’s acting like a Jewish princess” refers to the stereotype of Jewish girls being spoiled by their parents.

While I don’t personally face overt antisemitism on a daily basis, since I inherited German physical features, it’s not hard to find when you look for it. (See also here and here.)

When inborn aspects of your identity, like neurology, gender or racial heritage are reduced to insults, it’s hard not to be hurt. It’s hard not to be afraid every time you hear of violence against another member of your demographic, because it could easily happen to you.

Ableist, gendered and racist insults only highlight how little our culture values those of us who embody those things. If we choose to encourage that disrespectful language to be used by those who are supposed to represent us in the law making process, we’re reinforcing the concepts behind them.

By reinforcing those concepts, we’re condoning the violence brought down upon those groups, whether we mean to or not.

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