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The s-word

Posted in Language, Learning disability by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on April 3, 2009

I was too busy to comment here about Barack Obama’s description of his bowling as “like the special olympics”. Needless to say it was a real gaffe for anyone in a position of authority, let alone a President, but given how liberally phrases such as this are thrown around I think the Special Olympics had the right response in seeing it as an opportunity to educate.

I was reminded of the issue while reading Michael Bérubé’s post this morning about discussing the issue with some students at LSU, one of whom “said that she’d been hearing not merely that this should be a “teaching moment” with regard to cognitive disability but also that we should take the opportunity to revisit the term “Special” itself, in order to ask whether the word hasn’t become the kind of default euphemism that needs to be retired along with the R-word.”

I’ve previously mentioned my distaste for “special” as a euphemism and while I would agree with Michael that I don’t expect the Special Olympics movement to respond favourably to that suggestion, I would also agree with the student’s suggestion “that Special Olympians themselves take the lead in determining the appropriate language for cognitive disability.”

Of course that’s easier said than done but I do think there should be more direction given as to how words should be used correctly, rather than just advocating outright banning. It is perfectly possible, although perhaps not advisable, to use the word ‘retarded’ to legitimately describe a delay in cognitive ability.

It is also sometimes legitimate to describe people with cognitive disabilities as ‘special’ but to apply it as a blanket term to describe all people with cognitive disabilities is condescending an just as dehumanizing as describing them as ‘retarded’ in my opinion.


Nothing special

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on July 2, 2008

One of the first changes I noticed in my own behaviour following the confirmation that our child has Down’s syndrome was a heightened sensitivity to the language used to describe disability and people with disabilities.

I have had to learn myself to refer to “babies with Down’s syndrome” rather than “Down’s syndrome babies” for example.

I am also learning not to be easily offended and how to be patient with friends and relatives regarding their use of language in the hope that they will pick up on our lead as to what we consider to be appropriate.

However, there is one word that to be is like fingernails on a blackboard: “special.”

“Special children line up for pre-K diplomas,” is the headline for this vomit-inducing piece from LoHud.com that means well but is a prime example of the sort of condescending attitude to disability that I have already come to hate.

I understand why the media is attracted to such euphemisms but “special” is patronising and lazy and trite. Why not just say “disabled children”? I’d even prefer they used the term “retarded” rather than “special” (although I accept that many would disagree with me on that one).

With that in mind I was pleased to see this comment in an opinion piece from the Canadian London Free Press reviewing a new book written by a man named John Ryan about his experiences raising his son Tiberius, who has Down’s:

“John Ryan doesn’t… agree with those who suggest that God sends his ‘special children’ to ‘special parents’. ‘It was just something that happened,’ he tells me. ‘And then you deal with it.'”

It’s refreshing to see the subject discussed so simply and honestly. Unfortunately even the writer of the opinion piece can’t avoid falling for the old cliché.

Still, Ryan doesn’t avoid pointing out the problems that came with having such a special son,” he adds later.

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