This piece was originally published on Disabled World
Language matters, full stop.
However, it doesn't follow that we have to use the right words.
The power of language is more about knowing our words are tools we use to share something grander than the words themselves. Hence, they - our chosen words and phrases - are fantastic clues to what we think and believe as well as powerful influencers. Different cultures have different histories with words. Different families have different histories with words and phrases. And different people have different histories.
If we tell someone who is autistic that they, in fact, are not autistic but rather have autism, we may be shutting them down in ways we don't understand. However, if we are in a position to communicate with that person and share that thought, that we see a difference between being something and having something, we open up the potential for powerful insights. For all of us. (BTW: My brother is autistic. :D )
If you ask me, "What's wrong? You look sick," because I look sick to you but I feel completely fine and your question has me feeling like I look tired and ugly, it is because words are powerful. But you didn't use the wrong ones. You reached out and cared. I can react by suddenly feeling tired and ugly (a reaction I've had) or by telling you not to say "what's wrong" because those are wrong words (a reaction I've been tempted to have) or by taking time to laugh at how tempting those reactions are simply because you asked what's wrong and thought I looked sick (a conversation I've had). You might then giggle with me and continue to reach out to people by asking what's wrong. Or maybe you'll shift your language but still reach out. Or maybe you'll be afraid to reach out at all.
Again, it's just plain truth that words and phrases matter. From the small everyday framing (What a horrible day vs what a difficult day vs what an exhausting day, etc) which infect our moods and influence our behaviors, to the ones we love to argue for or against in certain circles.
When we argue against a word or phrase it's usually because we understand the harm a history has done with that word or phrase at the helm. We start having epiphanies and intense realizations about the word and how insidious it is. We want to throw it away and grow an entirely new way of seeing and speaking. When we argue against freaking out about certain words and phrases it is often because we have loved ones with different histories, we have seen too many people hurt by being afraid to use the wrong phrases, and we care about including everyone.
Also, sometimes we argue for or against because it sounds smart or righteous and we aren't thinking much about it at all.
I love a lot of people who are a variety of disabilities, orientations, histories, and colors. Some speak and some do not. They all want to communicate and have various challenges doing so. We do our best work when we pay attention to where the communication is coming from. Where the words are coming from and how they are affecting our beliefs and the inclusion of people around us. Languages are different around the world and words are not right or wrong, but the meaning behind them, the influence they have on how we treat each other and ourselves, is indeed real.
It is a wonderful idea, sharing how we feel about the words people use around us. It is a wonderful idea, being willing to shift our language when we recognize it as growing out of a belief that is unkind. It is a wonderful idea. It is wonderful.
Language evolves anyway and getting involved in that evolution in order to be a thinking person who is aware of the influence it has on us, as well as the clues it offers to who we are, is meaningful.
Language is a wildly interesting and powerful thing. It would be
sad, I think, to shut down conversations about it entirely. But to shut
down people for the words they use is also sad. My brothers use the word
retarded easily and comfortably (they are aware of the diagnosis from
their childhoods) and it looks good on them. They are not name calling,
they are talking about themselves and sharing insights. When someone
tries to tell them retarded is a wrong or bad word, they confess to
feeling shut down and shot down. [My mom wrote these two wonderful posts that highlight the brilliance of my brothers when using socially unacceptable words and behaviors: Reality Retarded and Before You React, Read On ]
However, when I've talked to them about why some people say that about the word, we have fabulous conversation. And they understand it, but don't agree. At least not at the moment, and not for them. And that's because they are thinking people taking the time to follow clues about where their words come from.
So let's pay attention to language. Let's share what we're discovering along the way. Let's watch our words. But more than the words themselves, let's watch where our words are coming from and what beliefs and behaviors they are fostering.