I originally posted this on Finnian’s Journey quite a while back. I think it’s totally worth revisiting for Down Syndrome Awareness Month. I’ve made some minor updates and revisions to the original; I hope it provides you with some chuckles and some good food for thought.
It’s always a good time for a few tips and reminders about offensive and non-offensive language (and attitudes!) concerning people with disabilities. ‘Cuz, if you wanna be my friend, ya gotta know the lingo!
~~ “Retarded” and “retard” are just plain unkind, and use of these words does not showcase the user’s intelligence, tolerance or sensitivity, nor does it make the user appear cool or superior, but only displays a desire to be superior. Especially when used in the slang, casual form, as in “That’s so retarded!” or “What a retard!” If overheard by a person touched by someone with Down syndrome or any other intellectual disability, pain and heartache will be suffered by the hearer. Is causing such hurt something you want to live with? It’s true that my son is what has in the past been clinically known as mentally retarded. I prefer to think of it as a learning disability. IQ measures one’s ability to learn; it does not measure their worth as a person or their right to respect and dignity.
~~ My son is not “Downs,” he is not “Down syndrome,” and he is not “a Downs kid” or a “Down syndrome kid.” Finn has Down syndrome. Down syndrome is not his primary identifying characteristic, and it is but one element of his genetic makeup.
~~ By the same token, Finn is not a “special needs child.” Honestly, I’m not extremely hip to the term “special needs.” I have six kids; five of them are supposedly “typical,” and yet they all have their own quirks, idiosyncracies, strengths, weaknesses, and yes, special, unique needs. So. I guess “special needs” is a safe catch-all phrase, which is definitely more benign than “disabled” or “handicapped.” However, if one is going to use the term “special needs,” Person-First language still applies, as in “child with special needs” as opposed to “special needs child.” It’s about respect and dignity, my peeps.
~~ I’m really not a fan of the whole “special” thing anyway. I mean, each of my kids are special in his or her own way. Finn is a child who has somewhat of a wonky chromosomal makeup. He’s not any more or less a blessing to our family than any of our other kids, he’s not otherworldly, and I can assure you that he does not have wings or a halo. He’s just a kid, trying to find his place in the world, same as everyone else.
~~ There is no such thing as “mild” Down syndrome! Down syndrome is the condition in which the twenty-first chromosome is triplicated in every cell of the body. So, just like it’s impossible to be just a little bit pregnant, Down syndrome – or Trisomy 21, which is the most common form of Down syndrome, and the form which Finn has – is all or nothing. There is also no correlation whatsoever between the “mildness” or “severity” of the facial characteristics of a person with Down syndrome, for instance, and their cognitive and/or developmental abilities. Physical, developmental, and cognitive strengths and weaknesses vary widely among people with Down syndrome, the same way they vary widely in “typical” people. It is no more possible to predict the ultimate potential of a person with Down syndrome in babyhood, based on how they look or anything else, any more than it is possible to predict any person’s ultimate potential in babyhood. The fact is, however, that most people with Down syndrome are have many more strengths and abilities than most people realize.
~~ My son is not “afflicted with Down syndrome,” nor does he “suffer from Down syndrome.” Down syndrome is not a sickness or a disease, and I suspect that the most suffering he (or our family) will do relating to his having Down syndrome will be directly related to the ignorance, intolerance, and unkindness of others towards people with disabilities. Yes, Down syndrome is often associated with various health issues which can affect quality of life, but this is not always the case, and the vast majority of health issues associated with Down syndrome can now be effectively corrected or treated, greatly improving quality of life. As for Finn, he’s healthy, he’s happy, and he’s very much loved. His life is not a tragedy, nor is our life with him in it.
Moving beyond the R-word, I have to admit that there are other words that sting me personally, thanks to Finn and his extra chromosomes. That’s the thing about having a child like Finn – it changes your perspective about certain things. And I’m here to say that that’s not a bad thing.
The other words I’m talking about are words like idiot, and moron, and imbecile. More words that we casually throw around to describe what we perceive to be stupid or substandard. And like retarded, they’re all born out of what were once upon a time merely clinical terms used to describe individuals with developmental disabilities.
What I’d like to see is the elimination from our human vocabularies, in all of their varieties, of any and all slurs that in any way put down any class of people – be that cognitive ability, race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever.
That said, I fully acknowledge our need as a people for epithets, for words that emote and express frustration with life’s little stupidities. So I offer you here a list of alternative language:
(Try unbelievable with an exclamation point, and with extra emphasis on the third syllable: “UnbeLIEVable!” Very effective. Go ahead, try it. Also, “ridiculous” and “unbelievable” can be used to boost each other, as in “Ridiculously unbelievable!” or “UnbeLIEVably ridiculous!”
Nouns (Words to Describe People):
I’m sure there are more. How many alternatives can you think of? Challenge yourself to sample alteratives for a few days and see if one or two don’t end up feeling like a perfect fit for you.
Perhaps you think I’m kidding. I’m not. Although I do hope you find these lists of alternative words entertaining, I’m serious about using them to replace idiot, moron, imbecile, and yes, retard.
Come on, people. It’s really, really not too difficult to think before you speak, to exercise a little sensitivity and compassion for who your audience might be, to try to see everyone’s humanity and worth. And honestly, putting forth just that little effort will probably make you feel good.