- By Stephanie Hickey -
I wrote an earlier blog about how the word “retard” is offensive and shouldn't be used casually, as if it doesn't hurt, and as if there aren't a million other word choices available to people. I am not the only one that has written or spoken out against the "r-word". There is a big national movement to educate people about the "r-word" and how harmful it is, urging others not to use it. And it has brought down a storm. Reading message boards, I saw the people getting up in arms, rallying, "I'll talk however the (you can fill in the blank on your own, I'm sure.) I want!" "I'm so sick of these whiny (you can fill in the blank again) trying to tell me how to talk. We have freedom of speech in this country."
Freedom of speech is an illusion in this country. Or I should say that it is a misinterpreted notion. Yes, we do not live in a dictatorship where will get imprisoned or shot if we speak out and say the truth or what is in our hearts. But there is no such thing as consequence-less speech and I think many people forget this and misunderstand the idea of "freedom of speech." There are reactions to what we say. Our words can offended others. And our words can wound others--and wound them deeply.
But that does not mean we should be afraid to speak out when it is necessary and right, because our words can have a positive effect--and a powerful impact. I don't know if the disability community is really putting the power of words to full effect. I feel that we have some dirty words in our vocabulary. "Please." "Thank you." "I'm sorry." We are always apologizing. (as if we are an inconvenience). And saying "please" and "thank you" aren't always bad things. It is good manners to say those words. But we speak them as if we are obligated to thank everyone for every little thing that someone does for us. And believe me, I am not being preachy here, I am very guilty of this habit myself. I am always saying I am sorry, and I am always apologizing for asking for things to which I am rightfully entitled. And we are not being whiny whatever-people-want-to-call-us simply by speaking up for the basic things we deserve, such as respect and dignity and independence.
We are a legitimate community and minority. But I feel that we are not taking the steps that other minorities have taken in the past to make positive changes for themselves. We are not using our voices in government as strongly as we should--and we are not communicating with each other. April is National Disability History Month, and it's been more than twenty years since the ADA has been passed. But I feel that the disability rights movement has stagnated. We need to not be afraid to use our voices. Yes, there will be consequences and reactions to what we say--people may not like what we've got to say. But we are free to speak out and say what we think - so we must speak out and let our words make an impact.
Image of the ADA signing ceremony at the White House.