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  • Writer's pictureApocalyptic Thanksgiving

Do words have power?

Updated: Oct 24, 2018

A coalition of disability groups called for a full boycott of the movie TROPIC THUNDER as well as an apology. Ben Still apologized for the use of the word ‘retarded’. But many defended the movie under the banner of satire and comedy.

It’s hard to find out if the offended actually watched the movie to see the jokes in context. An example is if people accidentally walked by comedy store, overheard some jokes and coalesced an outrage mob. I watched the movie to see if it was truly as offensive as people said. But it turns out that the joke isn’t at the expense of developmentally disabled people. I found myself laughing at the uncomfortable truths of Hollywood through the movie’s idiotic characters of Kirk Lazarus (played by Robert Downey Jr) and Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller). The truth revealed to the outside world is that some actors are so desperate to earn an acting Oscar that they choose roles that portray someone with disabilities that are not relatable. It’s difficult to follow someone that you can’t relate to.

As someone who is a caretaker of special needs adults, here are some thoughts on the particulars of politically correct language that we use. If someone’s offended, Ben Stiller should sincerely say something graceful. On the other hand, I do agree that we all should have a sense of humor and not leap to def con five of outrage that everyone seems to be on social media these days.

What words should we use or no longer use?

Do I ever call any of the clients retarded? Never. It’s not in my vocabulary. They are my family. Would you ever call a member of your own family retarded? Wait… Let me take that back. I’ll rephrase that: Would you ever make a disparaging remark about their disability? If your kid was special needs would you call them or ever think of them as anything less than special? A sad fact is that some parents do, but that’s a whole other story. Do adults with special needs ever use the word retarded? Yes, they do.

They also use words like idiotic, dumbass, moron, loco, crazy, coo coo, etc… It’s a rabbit hole of words we should sunset because they are offensive to someone. But are the right people offended meaning is that the adults with special needs being offended? Maybe it is someone feeling that they must be offended on their behalf. Where do we draw line to the honor the adults with special needs while still giving them breathing room to be human?

Don't Limit Us

To give some other voices, Jamie Brewer is an actress with Down Syndrome. She has a message for people who use disparaging language: “Don’t limit us.”

Jamie is a groundbreaking actress who adds so many layers to the “American Horror Story” series.

The mother of another person with Down syndrome prefers the word “disabilities” as opposed to “special needs.” Her wishes are to ‘spread the word to get rid of the r-word’.

Disabilities vs Special Needs

She prefers a discussion of someone’s disabilities. Others don’t want the word ‘handicap’ used. They prefer ‘handicapable’.

Some special needs adults are dual diagnosed. It means that they have developmental disabilities and have mental illness such as schizophrenia, depression, personality disorders, bipolar, etc… The different mental illnesses can be found in the manual called ‘DSM.’

Doctors will ask the adults with special needs diagnosis right in front of them. Out of respect, I refer to them as ‘MR’ so I avoid using the ‘R’ word.

The community of disabilities has the best of intentions. Empower and remove the shame of their disability, starting with the Special Olympics - a celebration of people’s physical prowess. A word like ‘retarded’ or ‘retard’ or any version of that was slowly replaced by the words ‘special needs’. The reasons were to prevent their feelings from being hurt, being abused and mistreated. But the word “retarded” comes from the clinical definition of ‘mental retardation’. We also use words like ‘developmentally disability’ or ‘D.D.’ for short. Those words also limits them. It says they are only capable of so much.

In California, we also used to use the terms ‘consumers’ or ‘clients’. They’re sunsetting those words and replacing them with others like ‘individuals’. This word is meant to empower the individuals. It’s language to provide support as well as teaching the care providers to provide dignity and honor their God given rights. This is an ever changing as we grow to understand them and their abilities.

There’s also advocacy for People First language. “We aren’t a disease, we have a disease. You aren’t cancer. You have cancer. You aren’t mentally retarded. You have mental retardation.” It puts the person first rather than the medical condition for it is the person that matters. I don’t believe people are advocating an angry Twitter mob after every misuse of words.

It seems there are different opinions on what words we should use or shouldn’t use. Some individuals want to have a discussion about their disability as opposed to masking it with the words, ‘special needs’.

And it is my hope in sharing that we consider the complexity of this whole situation. It really does speak to the fact that they truly are “individuals” for no one way works or all. We have that right: shouldn’t they?

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