“You can’t be so sensitive and take everything personally!”
“How can anyone keep up anymore with what is acceptable or politically correct?”
“They didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just their generation.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or even used) excuses like these when someone is called out for using an offensive word or phrase.
I’d like to share something that actually happened to my son and me two years ago. Although I wrote down everything the day it took place so I wouldn’t forget details (always a journalist!), it’s taken me the time since to have the guts to share this encounter publicly.
I was out with JB getting lunch at a café before his therapy appointment. As I went to grab milk for my coffee (you know, back when you could add your own milk and sugar without fear of A PANDEMIC?), an elderly woman nearby commented on how cute JB was.
The woman asked how old he was, and then asked, “Why is he moving his head like that?” (He was shaking his head back and forth, a common behavior related to his sensory issues and head/neck support.)
I explained that he has a muscle condition and it takes a bit more effort for him to maintain head control, as I still waited for the milk for my coffee.
“Can’t they operate and fix that?” she snapped.
“We’re working on it through therapy. He’s getting stronger every day and we are so proud of him and the strides he’s made!” I calmly explained, wondering when the customer in front of me would finish with that darn milk carafe.
“Oh. My cousin had a [r-word] kid and put him in an institution. Luckily her second kid came out normal.”
Cue the stunned silence.
“That sounds like a tough decision for your family. OK, bye,” I somehow managed to spit out as I pulled a U-ey with JB’s stroller and got the heck out of that café, tears already starting to spill down my face.
There are so many, many issues to address in this exchange: The use of the “r word”, the lack of boundaries, the implication that disability means undesirability, and the blatant “otherness” of her statement, for starters. JB is a strong, hilarious, and compassionate kid who has made such strides so far in his life. We are so fortunate to have him, and to suggest anything otherwise is a slap in the face not only to him, but to our entire family. I don’t care if this woman had her own issues or problems. Maybe she did grow up in a different time, but that doesn’t negate the fact that she was WRONG.
The moral of the story is this woman was awful and I am a saint for not “spilling” my hot coffee on her. The end. Roll credits.
Wait, that’s not the moral? Fine.
I guess the real lesson to be learned here is that if you think something might be remotely inappropriate to say, just don’t say it. It’s as straightforward as that. If any part of you feels the need to preface a statement with “No offense but…” or “I don’t mean to be rude but…”, just don’t say it.
If you are concerned about proper wording or language, or determining what words or phrases are or are not “correct”, the best thing you can do is stay informed. There are so many incredible voices in the disabled community right now, sharing their experiences and fighting to be seen and heard. I can’t begin to do justice to their eloquent explanations of preference of some terms over others, so I’m going to share a few links for you to learn directly from the disabled creators themselves.
- I’m ‘Special’! // Identity First vs. Person First Language by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard
- 3 Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs” by Meriah Nichols
- Whatever You Do Don’t Call Me Differently Abled by Elizabeth Wright
Do you have a favorite disabled activist or creator you follow online? I’d love to hear your suggestions.