Friday, May 11, 2012


Words hurt.

The most difficult thing he ever told me was that he'd overheard his mother say, "If I'd known I would have had an abortion." He cried hard while telling me. He was one of the few who never asked where his parents were, when at Christmas, they never came to get him. He was one of the few who lived, abandoned, in contentment. But the occasional bursts of self injury had brought us together - me as a behaviour therapist, he as someone who needed to learn to express rage without hurting himself so badly.

Words hurt.

She had been on her way through the food court, purchases resting happily her her shopping bag, on her way to the bus stop just outside the door of the mass eatery. A group of boys, watching her began talking loudly about her - to each other in pretense - to her in reality. "Hey," said one boy, "you ever tasted Ret-ard c-nt"? The resulting laughter brought on even more vulgar conversation. The words struck at her. The ugly sexuality of the words frightened her. She was traumatized. She felt raped by the very words spoken. She developed extreme panic attacks out in the community. Years after the incident she had a severe panic attack, she died, the doctor said, of fright.

Words hurt.

I have just finished my last booked 'train the trainer' on abuse prevention. I have travelled the province over. Every single time, in every single town, people with disabilities have talked, confided, about the impact of words. Without exception, at some point in the workshop, someone has mentioned bullying and the violence of words thrown at them. I've been in small, small communities and heard of intolerance and hatred. I've been in Canada's largest city and heard of the violence of words.

And I've learned something. That there is no place safe. No universal sanctuary from the assault of words. The core of the family - where words tumble carelessly and thoughtlessly out of the words of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and uncles and aunts and grandparents. The core of the community where gangs of roaming youth, where store clerks but their hands in plastic bags so they don't have to touch what's been touched by 'them', where security guards remove the victim from the mall as a solution to bullying. The core of services where staff, when angry, are professionally hurtful - using language that demeans and tones that assault. There is no place safe.

Words hurt.

But I am not hopeless.

But I am not despairing.

I am not.

Because, and only because, as I've travelled this province, as I've listened to people tell of their treatment, I am hearing something new, something different. The first time I taught teens with disabilities about bullying and teasing years ago, I found a passive acceptance of the bullying - that's what you get for being different. That's gone. Completely gone. I first noticed it in the northern most community I visited - where Joe and I were doing the abuse prevention workshop, where staff were learning to do it themselves, where people with disabilities had graciously agreed to let the workshop be viewed so staff could learn to do it, a voice spoke out about bullying and teasing. A voice told a story of unkind words, words with sharp edges, thrown at him. And others murmured. An angry murmur. There was a frozen moment where those who had experienced what was described became unified in anger. There was a change, I realized, brewing. They knew it was wrong. They knew it was undeserved. They knew it needed to stop.

And yesterday, my last training day booked, after travelling thousands of miles, north, south, east, west, I heard it again. One man spoke of being teased. A woman with Down Syndrome looked at him and said, 'Me too.' For a second I saw the faces of the others with disabilities set - realization first, determination next. They knew. Like they all knew. That they weren't responsible.

It is that realization, maybe that alone, that sparks the beginning of revolution. Because once the realization that 'respect' should be expected not gifted hits - things change.

I'm ready for change.


Words hurt.


Anonymous said...

Yes, words hurt!
very, very much


tekeal said...

thank you for this reminder of truth over and over again. and for teaching so diligently about it.

Colleen said...

There is a man who comes to my class to talk about his life in an institution. It takes incredible courage to stand in front of a group of strangers and talk about very personal things. He does it because he is passionate about making sure it never happens again to anybody else. Last time he was there when his talk was over and I was helping him pack up his stuff, my students had left for their next class and a new group of students was coming into the classroom chatting casually. Out of the chatter came quite clearly the word "ret@rded". We both froze. The word was not aimed at my guest speaker, it was just casually thrown out there. I went and handed the students a Words Hit card. They were resistant, talking to them would have hit a brick wall. I followed up with their teacher and I am in the process of working with the leader of our college's "respect" campaign. I cannot let this drop. Here is a man of integrity, passion and courage who for the over 50 years of his life has faced that word and worse. Let the revolution begin!!!

Tamara said...

Yes, words hurt. It is amazing how many people just don't care that their words are hurtful - I see it when I read the comments on posts about the R Word on internet articles. It amazes me how frequently I hear the word in public. But, I do have hope because the more we talk about it, the more people get it.

Floortime Lite Mama said...

you are so so so right

Loved your post

I meet so many people who have simply forgotten the concept of kindness

Utter Randomness said...

Other words that hurt: when parents of kids with disabilities tell other parents that they should "hope and pray to never have to deal with this". Worse are the parents that say so in front of their children. I have Asperger's Syndrome, and every time I hear a parent say something like that, it's like a slap in the face, like that parent is saying that I'm a huge burden on my parents (which I'm not, I live independently and take damn good care of myself) and that people should hope to never have a child like me.

As far as the r-word, I am a big fan of reclamation movements in terms of identity that people choose for themselves (I identify as queer), but it is never okay to use words like that in a pejorative sense, even if you "don't mean it that way." Because it does still mean that. People who use "the meanings of words change" irritate me, because when you use someone's identity as an insult, you're insulting them, that's kind of the point.

Andrea S. said...

Utter Randomness:

And even if you *didn't* live independently and even if you *did* need support in caring for yourself, that STILL wouldn't make you a "burden", on your parents or on anyone else.

Utter Randomness said...


yes, I know. Thank you for mentioning that. There seems to be the assumption that people with aspergers/autism never manage to live alone, which is irritating.

Beth said...

FWIW, Dave, passive acceptance of bullying seems to be disappearing in the larger world, too. Well, at least here in the US. Anti-bullying campaigns in the schools, PSA's during kids programming, occasionally in newspapers and cities in general. "Kid's will be kids", "just don't let it bother you", and "sticks and stones..." seem to be on the way out. I'm not yet 30 and it wasn't like that when I was young. Now I can't say whether it's gotten us more understanding kids, but surely pointing to bullying as wrong and not encouraging passivite acceptence (or retributive violence) is a good thing.

Utter Randomness said...

Beth, bullying is still going strong, in the US and elsewhere, and the sticks and stones rhetoric is too. Anti-bullying campaigns are met with opposition from people who believe that bullying is a right of passage or that it isn't so bad and "we need to stop pandering to the *insert derogatory word here*". Nothing has really changed, and schools face overwhelming opposition from the parents of bullies, to the point that they are unwilling to punish children for bullying for fear of reprisals from parents. I agree that there has been more attention lately, but an anti-bullying campaign that is only words does nothing to help.

Anonymous said...

Name calling, cruel taunting, discouragement - they all stick to your soul - for life. We could probably all recall an incident (or many) in vivid detail where our spirits were wounded by unkind/cruel words. The ol' sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me - is rot. Most external wounds heal - but wounds of the heart never seem to.

Baba Yaga said...

Thanks, Dave. Hope in the morning is good.

There's another meme which bothers me, that bullying isn't o.k., because the victims don't deserve it. It bothers me, because what of the victim who does (or thinks he does, has been persuaded by the pervasiveness of bullying that he does, and has no peer group to stand with, no allies to show him that he's more than the bullies tell him)?

Because, can people only be victims if they're innocent, or nice? Is barbarity o.k. if we only perpetrate it on those defined as not o.k.? And are we sure barbarity won't spread, or that our definitions of 'not o.k.', of 'deserving' barbarity, won't spread, again, to include anyone Not Like Us?

People don't see those implications, by and large. It never occurs to them that the knee-jerk "you didn't deserve it" doesn't offer comfort or refuge to those who have real social or moral failings (the social are picked up on far more than the moral, but bullies like to moralise); and who perhaps need refuge all the more for that, since being bullied teaches one nothing about how to be a citizen, how to be likeable, how to have empathy.

At least, if it does, it's entirely by accident.

Anonymous: I think wounds of the heart can heal. It's not guaranteed, it's slow and not easy, and there's scar tissue left behind; but it is possible, given a certain amount of fortune. That's almost nit-picking, except that it's a lot easier to pursue healing if it's defined as possible.