Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Words Hit Like A Fist
Several years ago:
A man with Down Syndrome leaves a movie theatre in Manhattan, a group of young girls come out from a showing of 'Something About Mary' flinging the word 'retard' around. He freezes, terror crosses his face. They hit him. Hard. Like a fist. I still see his face in my mind.
A year ago:
Shopping at Longo's just north of the office the produce manager loudly calls one of his staff a retard. I blow up and create a scene. Everyone forgets what the man says and wonders why the fat guy in the wheelchair is being bothersome.
8 months ago:
Staff stops by my office and tells me that on an outing to a food court several teenagers get up and move from their table saying they "Won't sit next to retards." Staff is furious but doesn't know what to do. Creating a scene would embarass those they are there to support. They feel sick. Powerless. Angry.
3 months ago:
In conversation with our self advocate facilitators, I am told that the subject of the word 'Retard' came up ... a painful discussion follows. Each has been hit. Hard as a fist.
1 month ago:
Two clerks holler back and forth in a store, calling each other retards. I remember the failure at Longo's ... I say nothing. Don't know what to do.
Then, I thought, "Enough."
I hear that damned word everywhere. In the mouths of seemingly everyone. It's like people have forgotten that words have impact, that words can hurt, that words can bruise. It's like people have forgotten that what comes out of our mouths defines who we are. It's like people have forgotten that those with intellectual disabilities can feel pain, real pain.
That damned word leaves us helpless. Not knowing what to do or say, wanting to act but not knowing how. I cower at the size of the problem, at the casualness of the prejudice. And yet I have never really confronted it. Never really done anything except to assure that those around me never use the word. Never say it in my presence. But that is not enough, that protects only me.
I wanted to do something. Along with my agency, my executive director, I decided to do something. I sat down and crafted a business card. On one side it read: Words hit like a fist! On the other side it says:When you use words like “R#tard” or “R#tarded” it hurts people, I heard you and it hurt me. Many people with disabilities consider “R#tard” the most offensive word referring to disability. I agree. Bigots use negative terms for minorities. R#tard is the same, it’s hate speech used by bigots. Consider carefully your words in the future.Because…Words Hit, Hard As a Fist. So, JUST STOP IT.
I envisioned making these for each of our staff, for each of our members. I envisioned using them in place of loud and useless confrontation. A few words that outline that bigots use words like these, that people hear those words and are hurt by them, that this is hate speech, that people with disabilities are a legitimate minority - and deserve respect as such. A few words to confront. I envision these cards being ripped up and thrown away. But I hope. I hope that the words stick like words do. That the words rankle like words can. That the words prompt examination like words will.
Retard is just a word.
So is Enough.
Even if we fail at making change in even one person, I predict we will make change in ourselves. We will be emboldened by this action. We will know what the extent of our own courage is. We will know better our own minds. I predict that as we change ourselves we will discover that silence, once the comfortable option, is no longer acceptable. The change we discover will not be anything more than the tossing off of complacency.
Even before the news broke about the movie 'Tropic Thunder' I had had enough. Even before those who know better but don't care were outed as disphobic bigots. Even before ... I had had enough. Meeting with Manuela this morning we talked about this card, about using the card, about beginning to action. We agreed that Vita will give this design to anyone, give these words to anyone, we will not copyright what we have created. Because this is about only one thing.