Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Right to Choose And How Far Does It Go: Words

Warning, I'm going to quote a conversation that I got pulled into with two people with intellectual disabilities. A boyfriend and a girlfriend were discussing who they were, not to each other, but to the world. I'm going to use the words they used as risk of offending every reader. But to be true to the story and to respect the language they chose to use, I am going to risk that.)

It begins:

I am sitting waiting for an event to begin.

They are a few feet away from me.

"I'm not retarded," he says.

"Yes you are and so am I," she says.

"It's a bad word," he says.

"But that's what we are, retarded, and it's not bad." she says.

"I don't like that word," he says, "people shouldn't use it."

"When I got called 'retard' at school, I didn't like it. But that's because it was a name and they were trying to hurt me. At home it didn't hurt to be retarded," she explained.

"The word is a wrong word, and I'm not that," he says with finality.

"Dave," she calls to me, "am I retarded?"

I roll over. I tell her that "retarded" is an old word that we don't use any more because it was and is used mostly to hurt people. I say that the word I use now, for myself and for people like her, who I serve, is "disabled."

"But I'm not in a wheelchair," she protested.

"There are all kinds of ways to be disabled," I say.

She sets her shoulders, "Well, I'm retarded. I don't care what you or anyone thinks about that."

He says that he prefers disabled.

They agree that he can call himself whatever he wants and she can call herself whatever she wants. That was the easiest part of the conversation. She then asked me if I would call her 'retarded' if she asked me.

I told her I had to think about it.

So, what should I do?

Besides hope that she doesn't ask me to because that's where I'm sitting right now.


Kelly said...

I think you need to use the term she chooses. She should get to choose, to name herself. It's OK that you don't like the term she chooses. I don't like it, either. But it would be pretty disrespectful to insist she use another term which she does not like or does not think fits her.

Nightengale said...

I probably would.

The problem was never really with the word itself, but the fact that intellectual disability is used pervasively as an insult, a synonym for badness. So our fight needs to be against using disability as a shortcut insult. Otherwise, in 10 years, someone will find a way to turn "intellectual disability" into an insult as well. In the US, "Sped" for "special education" is used as a put-down. I've actually predicted "chal" (for "challenged" will be the next playground taunt.

Reclaiming words is really sticky and tricky. I can call myself a "crip" but don't want non-disabled people to call me that. But I've also been told that I can't call myself "disabled" but have to be a "person with a disability," even to the point of being told not to "put myself down" by saying I'm "disabled." The autistic community is constantly fighting against those who refuse to respect our wishes to be called "autistic."

Crystal Vanillancourt said...

I think respect is an important part of any kind of relationship. It's equally important for her to respect your feelings as it is for you to respect hers. It's seems simple to say, but it's much more difficult in practicality. She shouldn't be forced to use a word she doesn't like, but neither should you. With open communication perhaps there is a solution you both can feel good about?

Sherry said...

I wouldn't use it. I respect her decision but to me it's derogatory & I couldn't use it. Same as if some one said I could call them the "n" word. I can't do it.

I personally would let her know that you respect her decision to use it to describe herself but to you it is disrespectful & you would rather use disabled.

Jenni said...

When I had what I used to call my breakdown, I would refer to myself as "mad" or having "gone mad". My psychologist kept telling me I shouldn't use that word, that it was a negative way to describe an understandable response to a terrible set of circumstances. At the time, I said "mad is shorter and clearer, I'm going to use that".

Now its nearly 10 years later and I wouldn't say "I went mad" any more. That's because I understand more about the problems of using that label. But I had to have the time, mental energy and inclination to do that learning. Maybe this lady's not ready to learn about these things yet, and that's OK. Maybe she never will be, and that's sad but OK too. But you know about the issues around this word, so your decision has to be based on your experiences and understanding, as well as being fair to her.

If I were you, I'd say to the lady "you are entitled to call your situation whatever you want. But for years the R word has been / is used to control and oppress people with a learning disability (or whatever the current term is in Canada) by people who don't have one - like me. If other people hear me calling you a word which they only understand to be a word of hate when said by someone who doesn't have a learning disability, they may think I'm trying to control and oppress you. That wouldn't be a safe position for me to be in - it could affect my job, I could be reported to the police etc. I have to keep myself safe in the world that I live in now, even when I hope it will change in the future. So I respect your decision about what you want to call it, but I'm sorry I can't use that word."

I agree with Sherry that this is comparable to the 'n' word; it's also like the reclaiming of 'fat' or 'crip'. People from those communities are attempting to reclaim those words but there is a long way to go before people outside those communities can safely and unambiguously-positively use those words.
For an alternative explanation of this, here's Tim Minchin's (swearing including) song about Prejudice:

Mandassassin said...

I would use it only in situations where I was one-on-one with her or with people who are close enough to know her preferred term. I would also explain to her that I wouldn't use it in other company because just hearing that word can really hurt people.

TMc said...

At the risk of a copout as Sherry states I personally would let her know that you respect her decision to use it to describe herself but to you it is disrespectful and so you won't use it to describe anyone. As for her, you will use her name

Unknown said...

That is a dilemma. I would tend to think it is a time to 'agree to disagree' as there doesn't seem to be any middle ground.
Yes, she has a right to be called what she wants to be called. And you have a right not to use words that hurt and that you have worked hard to eliminate from use.
Perhaps trying to find other areas about her where you both agree....might be a way to show respect to her and appreciation of her individuality without getting stuck in a situation with a'winner' and a 'loser' and the resentment that can cause. (cuz we are all human)
just my 2 cents. clairesmum

Ettina said...

I think you should call her what she wants to be called. I've encountered people who have a similar reaction to me not using person first language for myself, and still want to call me a person with autism instead, and I find it very disrespectful. She's said what she wants to be called, if you must clarify why you're using that word for her, just say that she told you to.

Amanda said...

Her reasoning shows that she understands you are a respectful person and that you describing her as such isn't an insult-that's a good thing. Perhaps the two of you could agree on a third alternate term since she doesn't like "disabled" but if you can't, I'm not sure it's OK to slap the label "disabled" on her when she identifies herself a different way.

I think this is something that happens with many terms...they begin as a descriptor, turn derogatory, and then are reclaimed and come back into fashion. If we don't let this young woman choose to use her preferred term, then we're not allowing her the same choice other marginalized groups have. I hate the way "retarded" has become some all purpose insult, but so has "gay" and I still use that. I don't have a problem with the word used in the appropriate context, even while I actively discourage and call out its inappropriate use.

Namaste said...

I'm with Sherry. Your feelings need to be respected, too. Both you and the woman you support are modeling standing up for your beliefs.

If it were up to me, the term would be "DIFabled" - differently abled. A statement of fact.

Unknown said...

Changing the word does not change the disability. However, I think like many "old terms" that once were ok to use, "retarded" has become a negative term...even if the intent to hurt is absent.

I think any person with a disability has the right to identify as they fit. As a disabled blogger, I am very careful to use positive terminology...even if I don't use those terms to identify myself. For example, I grew up identifying myself as "wheelchair bound". Today, many people prefer "wheelchair user". I still identify myself as I always have. I just chose to be sensitive to others.

I read a blog written by a disabled man who refers to himself as a cripple. I know this offends many people, but it is his disability and his right to use his own terms. I have actually used this term when joking with close friends and family. However, if a stranger came up to me and stated "Look at that cripple" I would be very offended. If an elderly person came up and struck up a conversation and stated that they have a "crippled grandson". This is not offensive because the intent is not to harm or offend.

I think you use the term you are comfortable with and explain why. I think the general rule for anyone who is aware of proper terminology has a responsibility to be sensitive to others. However, I think any disabled person has the right to have their own identity, including whatever term they chose to use to refer to themselves.

Chris said...

Why don't you call her by her name. There is not a need to label her or anyone.

Unknown said...

I don't know the right answer, but I hope my daughter grows up to have as much confidence and self-acceptance - the kind based on pride, not resignation - as this young woman seems to have. I bet the first lqbq people to start reclaiming "queer" faced similar horror and resistance from their own friends. I'm uncomfortable with it, too - but I wonder how much of that is coming from my own ableist desire to "protect" her?

GirlWithTheCane said...

I've always wondered how I'd handle that conversation. Generally I ask people how they self-identify and respect that decision...but no one's ever asked me to use a term that's as difficult for me as "retard".

I think ultimately I'd explain that while I respect her decision to self-identify the way she wants, "retard" is a difficult word for me, and talk about why. I'd ask her if it's very important to me to me that I call her that, but that I'd really prefer not to - could we could come up with another word together if it's okay with her...but make sure she knows that if it's really important to her that I call her that, I will. I'd also tell her that I self-identify as disabled and prefer to be called that, so that we can both be clear on the issue and talk about how respect for choices for self-preference should be reciprocal.

Her preferences for self-identification aren't about me; they're about her. I guess my only issue would be whether she truly realizes why people find "retard" such an objectionable word, and if she'd use self-identify using it if she did. But is that really my business? I don't know...

wheeliecrone said...

You can always agree to disagree.
You don't have to use a word that you find offensive.
And she, of course, has every right to call herself whatever she chooses.
So you can agree to disagree.

Utter Randomness said...

How do you feel about queer as an identity?

I think that people can identify however they wish, but can't tell other people how to identify.

Anonymous said...

When I lived in the Dominican Republic, our community's driver was a man who introduced himself to me as "Negro". That was simply the name he called himself, and everyone knew him by. When we needed his driver services, the protocol was to stand in the street and shout his name. I simply couldn't bring myself to do it (I think it was made worse that I was supposed to summon him to do a job).
The thing is that he was very offended by my inability to call him by his name. I had made attempts to explain that at home it would be considered very disrespectful, but that didn't make it any better for him.
Tricky thing, language!