Tuesday, November 24, 2009


By Keith Hosey

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’d like to preface this blog post with two things about me. The first is that I don’t, and never will, understand why or how one human being could ever treat another human being with complete intolerance based in the simple fact that they differ in some way. This isn’t just disability related, but race, religion, sexuality, etc. The second is that about ten years ago I made a conscious decision to strike words that hurt other people out of my vocabulary. This included many commonplace phrases in the English language that were in some way originally based in some type of prejudice. You may say, “So what? I wouldn’t use them in the first place”, but when’s the last time you called something you didn’t like “gay” or maybe insinuate that a cheap friend was of a certain religious denomination? Never?

I recently became aware of the campaign to stop the use of the “r-word” by the Special Olympics, “Spread the Word to End the Word” (www.r-word.org). This is a word that I have in the past used regularly and recklessly. When I stumbled upon this campaign I was floored. My heart dropped into my toes and I wondered how could I have ever overlooked the power and pain of this word? I work with people with intellectual disabilities and their families. People who I consider good friends have relatives with intellectual disabilities. I have relatives with intellectual disabilities. How did I rationalize this unacceptable use of language?

I sifted through some online articles, blogs, etc. and stumbled upon the term ableism (the term for prejudice against people with disabilities). I’ve been reading a lot of stuff out there about the topic of ableism, the good, the bad and the ugly. For every article or blog post talking about ableism, there were 10-100 responses and comments ranging from the too common sentiment of “political correctness has gone too far if we have to watch what we call these people” all the way to very shocking hate language that I choose not to repeat here.

Why is it so much more socially acceptable to discriminate against people with disabilities than other minority groups and why is it ok for most of society to ignore that discrimination? It’s 2009 and I’ve seen a political campaign mocking their opponent’s speech impairment, celebrities and comedians throwing the “r-word” around because they think it’s a victimless crime. It’s every day. Fifty-five years after “separate is not equal,” students with disabilities are still segregated. If we can’t teach equality in grade school, how can we achieve it as adults?

In my search for answers, I asked a family friend about his childhood in Kentucky and how he could do nothing while segregation occurred. He told me that while he didn’t necessarily think it was right, “it’s just how it was” and what could he have done about it. His answer was honest and simple and helped me frame the essence of bigotry better in my mind. It’s easier to go with the group-think, the status quo, isn’t it? It gives us a sense of belonging. Norman Kunc, a disability rights activist, once said about prejudice’s role in that sense of belonging “if I hate the same guy you hate, we must be friends.” So if our first African-American President can make a joke about the Special Olympics, then I should feel better about laughing at people with disabilities?

But I think there’s light and hope at the end of the tunnel. History has shown that acceptance of people with disabilities increases every time there’s an influx of wounded warriors in this country. We have many brave men and women returning from war with disabilities and it is our duty to make sure we welcome them with compassion and respect and to ensure they have an equal seat at the table. We have the new Hate Crimes Act protecting individuals with disabilities (recent studies have shown that People with disabilities over the age of 12 are 50 percent more likely to experience nonfatal violent crime than those without disabilities). Progress to equality marches on.

You and I can be part of that guiding light of tolerance and acceptance at the end of the tunnel, too. In a film called Including Samuel (a child with Cerebral Palsy) Samuel’s mother says, “I can’t believe that I was so blind… there was this huge amount of prejudice going on and I never noticed it before… and now I can’t believe that not everybody sees it.” Whether you are one of the 20% of Americans living with a disability, or non-disabled, watch your language and actions and think about the people it hurts. Don’t stop with yourself, do your part to end ableism by speaking out against others words and actions, don’t be silent.

Here is an additional resource on disability etiquette and words with dignity.


  1. Keith,
    I dont know you, but I like you. As a parent of a 19 year old son with Down Syndrome, It always gets to me when I hear people use the "R" word.
    I am lucky to live in a town with a progressive school system. They integrate the kids whenever possible so their peers can get to know them.
    My son has worked in a number of local jobs through the school in local business's. He works in a sandwich shop now and still sees some of his peer friends from the high school he went to.
    Keep up the good work and the good thoughts!

  2. Jim,
    Thanks for the comment. I'm glad that your son is achieving independence through work and friendships. It’s unfortunate that as we all build lives for ourselves that others choose to attack those lives with hurtful acts or words. Or worse, can’t see that the words they use are so devastatingly hurtful to groups of people. I am reminded of the saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword” because I do believe that certain words can cause a pain to the heart and the spirit as bad as a physical attack.
    Please keep up the good work yourself.