Words are the products of our thoughts, attitudes, opinions, beliefs and convictions. That is why the language we use has great power. Fortunately we always have the choice to speak in either a positive or negative manner. We can be outspoken or cautious. We can be abrasive or comforting. We can be accepting or judgmental, or we can choose to remain silent and say nothing at all.
Words can have far more influence than we realize because they convey feelings and emotions, both good and bad. People remember a sincere compliment or kind word for years, and the same is true for an insult or a harsh remark. All of us can remember a circumstance when we were on the receiving end of unflattering comments. We have each had things said about us that we didn’t deserve. As children we were called names that hurt. The fact that we still remember those words after so many years demonstrates their true power.
Language is critically important in the world of developmental disabilities. Certain words have the ability to shape decisions and to have a profound effect on the lives of the people we care about. When we use words like inclusive, diversity, respect, compassion, opportunity and equality we are projecting a positive view of individuals with intellectual challenges. They carry uplifting messages, and they convey a sense of belonging and community. These are words that build people up rather than making them feel inadequate. They support an individual’s dreams, aspirations and goals. They are the result of exceptional ideas that are turned into supports, programs and community involvement.
But too often when describing people with Down syndrome, autism, fragile X syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and many other types of disabilities we use language that is inaccurate or inappropriate. Sometimes it is thoughtlessly used as a form of shorthand. Words like “low functioning” and “retardation” have a dehumanizing effect when applied to people who have the right to be treated as equal members of society. That is why we should strive to use words that show respect and preserve dignity and avoid language that reflects intolerance or narrow-mindedness. Words of kindness, support and encouragement make another person feel valued and worthwhile. While language that is disrespectful can damage a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
Our choice of words in describing individuals with disabilities actually illustrates what kind of people we are. Because words communicate someone’s true feelings and opinions, disparaging language reveals our own prejudices and biases. We only have to listen to the words a person uses to figure out how they really feel about a particular subject. When someone chooses to describe another person as broken, defective or less than, they are unwittingly demonstrating their ignorance about people they do not know. They are letting their unfounded judgment and misconceptions cloud their thinking. They are hurting people by using language that objectifies them by stripping away their humanity.
We each know how painful it can be when someone reduces who we are and everything we’ve accomplished to just a few inconsiderate words. Every one of us has physical traits or personality quirks that could easily be ridiculed with demeaning language if someone so desired. We are all vulnerable in some way and the last thing we want is for someone to verbally attack us about an issue we have no control over. No one wants to be the butt of a cruel joke. No one wants to be put down for the way they look, the way they speak or the way they move. Each person is doing the very best they can to fit into a culture that is not always welcoming. The last thing they need are insensitive remarks that criticize their efforts.
Sadly words are sometimes used as a form of bullying. Aggressive or degrading language leveled at those who cannot respond appropriately or defend themselves is absolutely unacceptable. Unfortunately such behavior often finds strength in numbers as several individuals band together to tease or taunt a person who, in some superficial way, seems different. Using words to attack someone is a simple case of taking the easy way out. Instead of making the effort to get to know them, a bully attempts to make himself feel superior at their expense.
When dealing with those who have developmental disabilities we must weigh our words and carefully consider our language. Each man or woman has the right to be treated with dignity. There is never a reason to stereotype or tear a person down. People with intellectual challenges struggle throughout their lives not to be defined by limiting words. As children, their families are sometimes forced to confront language that hinders their child’s right to be treated fairly. It can be an issue that follows a person all of their lives.
On the other hand, when we speak to people with developmental disabilities in a positive way we can have a meaningful influence by letting them know that someone cares about them and believes in them. When a person has been told repeatedly that they will never be able to accomplish something, even before they’ve had the opportunity to try, being encouraged with supportive inspiring language can have a dramatic effect by giving them the necessary confidence to attempt challenges that can transform their lives. Our words have the ability to lift people up, they possess the power to have a significant impact because they often represent life changing ideas and concepts. They are the building blocks that lay the foundation for how society perceives those that we care about.
People with developmental disabilities deserve to hear words of caring and support. They deserve to hear words of compassion and acceptance. They deserve to hear language that treats them with respect as equals.
We should always choose our words wisely because they reveal who we really are.