Myth: “It’s Just a Word”

R Word

At the beginning of March, schools, businesses, and cities around the country organized “Spread the Word to End the Word” events to spread awareness to advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, I am sure that in the course of these events, you all experienced at least one person (either this year, or in the past) that disagreed with it, and one of the most common reasons he or she had was something along the lines of “It’s just a word—what’s the big deal?”

Despite our best intentions to increase awareness about ability rather than stereotypes of disability, people are stuck on this idea that the R-Word is “just another word” that holds no deeper meaning. We, of course, know that it does. The very fact that we have a day dedicated to its extinction is evidence enough that this word affects many people. Still, so many people will come up to your R-Word booth and criticize what your chapter or group is doing and—most importantly—why you are doing it. This may seem harsh, but frankly, it is the truth—people are convinced that this current age of political correctness is going to be the death of us with everyone going around walking on eggshells instead of just saying whatever we want.

The question “what’s the big deal?” is one that advocates need to be familiar with, and know how to effectively answer when it’s posed. Oftentimes, we reply with some version of “the use of the R-Word is disrespectful to people with disabilities.” This is, of course, true and valid—but let’s take it to the next level. Kathie Snow has written a very compelling article entitled, Is It “Just Semantics?” The very definition of the word ‘semantics’refers to the meaning that we give to words. Kathie Snow explains the R-Word is not “just a word” because language shapes our thought processes, which can affect our actions. When we look back at the Civil Rights Movement, the role of the N-Word was to disrespect African-American people, but it also fueled attitudes and actions towards African Americans in our country for one hundred years after the Civil War. In short, words are powerful, and their power lies in the meanings we give them.

Spread the Word to End the Word is about empathy, not sympathy—and we must realize that there is a crucial difference between the two. People with disabilities do not want or need our sympathy. With everything that people have said to them or about them, the last thing that people with disabilities need is our feeling sorry for them—what they really need is respect, our understanding, and our knowledge that they deserve to be on an equal playing field for the same aspirations that everyone else has. The root of the STW Campaign is an awareness issue that addresses the matter of respect: respect for oneself as a self-advocate, respect for parents who love their child unconditionally, respect for a sibling who understands that although their brother or sister may look differently, it does not detract from the amazing bond that they will have in growing up together, respect for a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a friend. We want to challenge you to think about the power of semantics, and the importance of showing respect through language. Strive to “spread the word to end the word” EVERY day, not just once a year.

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