There has been a campaign called 'Spread the Word to End the Word'. As a mother with a child with Down Syndrome I was thrilled about the campaign. Just to be absolutely clear, this is a campaign against the R- word or 'retard'. I shudder when I hear the word, whether in jest or in reference to an atypical individual.
But over time I felt a measure of discouragement. You see, it not so much the word itself that I wish to see end, it's so much more. Language is a constantly evolving thing. A classic example is the word 'gay' for which I highly doubt the younger generation knows it's original meaning. How the word is used, the tone, the context always says even more than the word itself.
There was a debate on a Facebook page about a joke posted about a teen who called someone 'special needs' because he felt her behavior was strange or silly. While the R-word was not used, it could have easily been placed in the sentence. The reaction from many parents of children with special needs was a little primal - mama bear come to cuff the head off anyone who harms her child and understandably so. What hurt was the offensiveness was still present although the words had changed. What we really want to stop is the thoughtless comments, the joking at another persons expense, the unkind ways we talk with or to others.
I'm well aware there are some who would say I am over sensitive to this because of my experiences. Others may argue that all labels should stop, including ones such as special needs. After all, the beginings of 'retard' were for much the same purpose. The irony in that statement is that it is those labels that have brought me the greater family and friends that I cherish. We understand each other because of our similar experiences. With that label I was able to know I wasn't alone in this experience of parenting a atypical child. On the other hand, it also serves to divide, mark off my child from the others and make those differences more pronounced. It can make us more alone. It's all in the context, the tone.
Perhaps what we really need is a campaign to simply be more kind, more thoughtful.
I know it doesn't have the same ring to it as other campaigns. It isn't even new, it's what our parent, grandparents, etc have taught for generations and perhaps there's a reason for that - we just aren't there yet. I do think we are better now that past generations, more aware of racism, there is more inclusion and exposure to others who are different. There is progress. But there is room for growth.
I want you to know I am by no means perfect (just ask my husband - I have a sharp tongue that he has unfortunately been on the receiving end of). I just know that before I had my children I saw things with such a limited view. At times I have been unkind, intentional or unintentional, and I regret those times. Not just because it tears others down, but also because it made me less human. I am grateful to those who gave me a measure of mercy and kindly corrected me. So now when offensive things come, I try to show that same generosity.
We are all learning, we learn together because of each other. I humbly suggest that when pain and offense comes, (because let's be honest, it's not a matter of if offense comes, but when) take a deep breath and swallow the bitterness. Remember our own ignorance not so long ago. Proudly share what we have learned and step back to let exposure, time and experience teach. To those on the receiving end,if we come off harsh please know we simply love someone who's future we fear for, especially If that someone lacks the means to speak for themselves. We are all children of God, we all have worth. It's not in the words we use but so much more the intention. May we strive to lift more often than we cut down.