I’ve been following with interest the ongoing debate about what the headline writers are now calling “the R word,” as in retard. The issue was given new impetus when White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is famous for his foul mouth, referred to liberal activists as “fucking retarded.” He brought down on himself the wrath of disability advocates and a sharp rebuke from Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, not to mention a Facebook tirade from Sarah Palin, who never saw a bandwagon she didn’t want to jump on.
As a card-carrying logophile, I have mixed feelings on movements to ban the use of any word. On the one hand, I think political correctness can all too easily run amok: remember the fuss when a political aide to the Mayor of Washington DC used the word “niggardly” to describe a civic budget? On the other, I understand how painful the impact of words can be, especially when they are bandied about thoughtlessly. On yet another hand, if I had one, that is how most of the human race employs language, nine times out of ten. (I leave it up to you whether or not to include lawyers in the human race, which might affect these odds. Pardon my lame joke. Which, by the way, illustrates the problem, since ‘lame’ is another word with the power to offend.)
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me! Nyah nyah nyah nyah!” Remember shouting those words on the playground … and then going home and crying your eyes out? It’s a huge lie; names can hurt like hell. But name-calling is just the tip of an iceberg; the real problem lies in people’s attitude to disabilities and to those who live with them. I had a very tiny taste of this attitude myself, many years ago, when I suffered some nerve damage during a spinal fusion and needed crutches to get around for a few months. Because I was not wearing a plaster cast or bandages, the crutches aroused intense curiosity in some people, who would debate aloud the possible reasons why I might need them. On one occasion, when I was on the train to work, a couple of women sat across from me, wondering what was “wrong” with me, and whether I should even be on a commuter train if I was “seriously crippled.” When I leaned across to explain why I was using crutches, they were quite offended at my interrupting their “private” conversation. Later, I mentioned the incident to a friend of mine, who had polio as a child and uses a motorised scooter. He laughed and said “You didn’t know? ‘Cripples’ are all deaf!”
Some of the bloggers in my blogroll have disabilities. Although society would lump them all together as ‘disabled,’ they are, in fact, a disparate bunch, with very little in common. FWD/Forward is a feminist blog with a number of contributors. As a feminist myself, albeit of the old bra-burning school, I find their points of view refreshing, trenchant, often provocative and sometimes shocking – which is how I believe feminists should be.
Planet of the Blind is another blog I like. It’s co-written by a professor of creative writing and disability studies at the University of Iowa and his wife, and also has a number of other contributors. It’s topical and interesting, and I highly recommend it.
We may think we’ve come a long way from the days when children born with disabilities were shut away in institutions, or displayed in exhibits for the ignorant to gawp at. The reaction of the Canadian media, during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, to Alexandre and Frederic Bilodeau proved otherwise. As I read the front page stories, salivating over Mr Bilodeau and his brother, I turned to The First Husband and said “WTF? (or words to that effect) Is the man a hero for winning a gold medal [assuming any normal person gives a shit!] or for acknowledging his brother, who has cerebral palsy, in public? This is sick.” Anna, a FWD/Forward blogger who takes no prisoners, wrote a terrific post about it. I hate to say it, but it was pretty damn’ inspiring! (Sorry, Anna.)