|Posted on October 30, 2014 at 4:05 PM|
Written by Sarah Witty
Language affects attitudes. Attitudes impact actions.
The importance of language cannot be overstated; even the seemingly smallest of differences can alter a whole generation's perspective. A psychological study showed that the gender pronoun used for a word in foreign languages changed that person's perception of that object: for example, the German word for 'bridge' is feminine and the Spanish word is masculine. When asked to describe a bridge, the native German speakers admired its 'elegance', whereas the Spaniards referred to its 'strength' - a reflection of the unconscious impact language and stereotypes can have on the human psyche. Obviously there are no gender pronouns in English, but it is the way we phrase things and our choice of words that has a similar impact on our subconscious. We always have a choice of how we put our ideas across. We can always think before we speak, yet so amazingly few of us do. For instance, in an American civil rights history lesson, do you refer to slaves or enslaved people. One suggests that they are nothing more than their occupation; the other suggests that they are people suffering under oppressive forces. Alternatively, do you describe someone as a disabled person or as a person with disabilities? One defines them by their handicap and the other allows them to be viewed as a person first while acknowledging their physical challenges.
So, what is the word that needs to end? Retard.
It is possibly the most abused word in the English language by our generation - second only to 'gay'. How did this medical term for someone with a mental disability come to be defined by Urban Dictionary as 'an offensive term used to refer to someone acting in an irritating or generally stupid way’. On the occasions that I call my friends out on a comment along the lines of "I can't believe she did that...what is she, retarded?" they are surprised that I take offence. Their typical defence is that, of course, they would never dream of using such derogatory terminology in front of someone with actual learning disabilities. Somehow, that makes it worse: their acknowledging that they know it is a disrespectful, but continue to use it.
However, the majority of people that come foul of this have no idea or do not recognise the harm that their words can cause. That's where the 'Spread the Word to End the Word' campaign comes in.
The campaign aims to raise awareness of the harmful impact that using the R-word can have. This hate speech promotes exclusivity. Its flippant use that refers to anything negative or stupid suggests that people with mental retardation are equated to nothing more than the ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ entities that the word commonly describes. The term highlights the minor differences, and can leave those affected by it feeling isolated because it implies that they are not part of the normal, ‘in’ group, thus leading to exclusion. The use of the word can be intimidating for people too; imagine you are surrounded by people using a word that could describe you to insult everyone and everything – the general response would be that they hate that aspect of you, and they are lesser people than the ones wrongly using such vocabulary. Above all, the word hurts. It hurts those that have the disability and those who care for those who do. It hurts and is as disrespectful as any other slur that would have had to be censored to write about.
200 million people- a significant 3% of the world’s population- have intellectual disabilities: making it one of the largest disability populations in the world. If, however, you do not know somebody personally affected, it does not make the use of the R word any less derogatory or excusable. By continuing the concept that ‘retard’ is interchangeable with ‘stupid’ or ‘wrong’, the negative stereotypes and stigmas associated with learning disabilities are perpetuated. These cause hugely unequal barriers in the lives of those on the receiving end of these negative attitudes (e.g. discrimination in employment opportunities). Despite living in an increasingly accepting and liberal world, the degree of tolerance has miles to go yet. A study of attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities, conducted by Gallup, showed that more than 60% of people believe that people with intellectual disabilities should be segregated in schools and in the work place. This proves that the out-dated opinion that those with mental disabilities are sadly still less valued as members of our society, of humanity. Attitudes need to change. Changing out vernacular is a key way to do this.
Language has evolved, as evidenced by a medical term now being synonymous with ‘dumb’. The Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign acknowledges that language therefore needs to continue to evolve. Consequently, the charities Best Buddies and Special Olympics have updated their official terminology with the phrase ‘intellectual disabilities’. This aims to use acceptable, people-first language that will dispel the negativity that wrongly surrounds the disability. The campaign is supported by these two organisations in addition to 200 others, demonstrating the traction that it is receiving both in the USA and also now worldwide too.
Spread the Word to End the Word has so far encouraged more than 500,000 people to take their pledge to use respectful, people-first language in place of the R word. People should be celebratory of each others’ talents rather than using derogatory language, although this is a year round belief, the first Wednesday of March is the official day to raise awareness for this cause. The campaign to stop the misuse of the dehumanizing R word has gained support from celebrities such as John McGinley (Scrubs), Lauren Potter, Jane Lynch (Glee) and Joe Jonas in the form of powerful PSA videos and hundreds of other citizens in smaller but equally important ways. I implore those of Berkhamsted School and the wider Berkhamsted community to take the pledge (www.r-word.org) and follow the lesson we have all been taught: think before you speak.
Language affects attitudes. Attitudes impact actions.
End the word.