Words Have Power, Use Them with Respect

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From the Winnipeg Sun

By Harry Wolbert, For the Winnipeg Sun
Monday, June 19, 2017 03:53 PM CDT

There’s a Japanese proverb that says: “The tongue is but three inches long, yet it can kill a man six feet high.” The words we use can have a profound impact upon the lives of others.

For centuries, people with disabilities have been labelled, euthanized, institutionalized, and excluded from our communities. Language has played a major role in how we’ve treated them. People living with intellectual disabilities have been called village idiots, feeble-minded, morons, imbeciles and retards. Today, these labels are considered outdated and offensive. Sadly, there are still some Canadians who use these words and phrases when referring to others.

People First of Canada and the Canadian Down Syndrome Society are working together on a project to raise awareness on the importance of language. Their project focuses on the use of the R-word and the ways that we can make students in our public school system aware of how the word affects labelled people. We need to teach our young people that using the R-word is no different than using the N-word when referring to an African-American. It’s offensive and unacceptable!

Most of us are familiar with the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Organizations which advocate for the rights of people with disabilities don’t believe that. They believe that words can hurt. Their message is that we need to be more respectful towards one another. This includes our words and our actions.

The R-word is often used to describe someone or something in a damaging or hurtful way. It reinforce negative attitudes and stereotypes of people living with intellectual disabilities. We should treat people with disabilities, and everyone else, the same way we would like to be treated. It’s a lesson we all learned at an early age, but sometimes forget.

What sort of language should we use? I believe that it’s wrong to reduce people to a diagnostic label. In North America, using people-first language has become the standard for respectful terminology. I am a person living with a disability. I also have a name. If you don’t know it, ask for it. That’s usually a good place to start when initiating a conversation with another person. It’s important to remember that everyone has value, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Let’s make respect the new R-word.

It’s been said that our beliefs become our thoughts, our thoughts become our words, and our words become our actions. The disability community knows from experience that negative language can lead to harmful actions like isolation, abuse, and violence. Stop and think, before you speak. Words have power — you do too!

The American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has been quoted as saying “The time is always right to do what is right.” When it comes to the R-word — do the right thing. Don’t use it! Take the pledge. Promise not to use the R-word. Support the removal of all offensive language from everyday speech. Encourage the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Finally, let us pledge to show respect to everyone.

— Harry Wolbert is an anti-poverty/disability advocate