Wake up and smell the rhetoric

Sunday, January 31, 2021 - 1:10pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

For most of my life, my brother Noah’s bedroom has been connected to mine. He cannot access the rest of the house without walking through my bedroom each morning. I have had the comforting privilege of reading Noah bedtime stories and hugging him goodnight a mere 10 steps from my own bed. 

And every single morning, Noah would quietly creak open my door, walk into my room in his old-fundraiser-t-shirts-turned-pajamas, stare at himself in my wall mirror and swiftly exit into the hallway to start his day. What I could have easily dismissed as an early morning annoyance became an experience I looked forward to with each wake up. 

Thanks to our intimate setup, almost every day of my adolescent life began with a reminder of Noah’s beautiful, unique magic. His quick "walk through and weirdly stare at himself” routine was the kindest personalized alarm clock I could ask for.  Even if it was just for a moment before I collapsed back into my pillow until it was almost too late for lunchtime, his warm smile and innocent curiosity pleasantly kicked off even the most dreadful of days. 

However, it was not only at the break of dawn that Noah’s wonderful and compassionate demeanor made me open my eyes, put on my glasses and truly wake up. 

Noah’s autism has paved the way for some of the most unusual, heart-wrenching and glorious memories of my life. Many of the moments that have shaped who I am were a product of his chaotic and beautiful personality. He has thrown my grandparent’s old books into nearby lakes, resulting in a chaotic yet entertaining family-wide effort to fish them out with string and a bucket. He has been held back by my struggling parents while I quietly cried as he attempted to jump onto train tracks during a meltdown out of desperation for his beloved train to arrive sooner. He has sung his own rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” for everyone at  his sleepaway camp at their last night campfire. He has been hugged and kissed by family members who love him endlessly and educated by teachers who would do anything to simply help him write his name. 

The combination of Noah’s loveable, engaging character and my immense compassion for him has made the empathetic understanding of those different from me a central part of my identity. Our bond has made his metaphorical wake up calls begging me to be kind and actively voice my experiences ring even louder. 

The first time I recall encountering offensive disability language — language utilized either consciously or subconsciously to dehumanize and/or disrespect those with disabilities — was as a freshman in my high school’s harrowing halls. Classmates I had barely spoken to would casually call a friend “retarded” or “sped” (shorthand for “special education”) for simple actions such as dropping a textbook or spilling water. Hearing these conversations left an anger in my chest that lingered with me. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but something about twisting words once reserved for people like Noah into casual insults tied my stomach in a knot. 

As I grew older and noticed these occurrences more frequently in my everyday life, I began to understand why these specific words deeply frustrated and disappointed me. Around junior year of high school, I googled the history of the word “retarded” in an attempt to understand why and how this form of hate speech has become so normalized. Unsurprisingly, my discoveries validated every concern I have ever had about the word’s harmful implications. 

What was once a neutral medical term for intellectual disabilities has been transformed into slang through the popularization of the term as a synonym for “unintelligent” or “thoughtless.” The term’s original definition existed to vaguely diagnose those with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities in a time before more extensive research on different disorders had been done. Due to the widespread use of the word in casual contexts, “retarded” was subsequently condemned as inappropriate within the professional community. Through efforts from the disabled community and their allies, the word was legally barred from use in political and professional proceedings. Through the creation of Rosa’s Law, former President Barack Obama approved legislation that “mentally retarded” was to be removed from all federal documents and replaced with the more respectful term of “intellectual disability.”  The law was passed and made possible by efforts from former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and the family of Rosa Marcellino, a nine-year-old girl with Down Syndrome, and their supporters. 

And that should have been the end of it. 

Rosa’s Law should have set the societal precedent that “retarded” and its counterparts had become so ridden with problematic undertones that it was time to move past their use. The public should have paid attention to the desires of the disabled community and respected their wishes. It should have been an easy decision to abandon speech that disrespectfully referenced a relatively large community. But this proved to be difficult for a society that struggles to listen to marginalized voices and often does not actively pay attention to the cultural contexts behind word choices.

Instead of listening to the voices of the disabled and carefully adopting a more respectful vocabulary, “retarded” was fully transformed into the twisted evil twin of its original interpretation’s intention. 

To gain both an educational and personal perspective on these linguistic issues, I spoke to Remi Yergeau, a University of Michigan associate professor of English and Digital Studies. Yergeau specializes in disability studies and is on the autism spectrum themselves. They discussed the reality of this harmful rhetoric and the ways in which these words reflect our societal and cultural values.

“The harm is very real,” Yergeau said. “Those terms are denigrating. They really serve no other purpose than to denigrate. But then they also communicate very strongly what the culture at large views as humanness, basically, because they are dehumanizing terms.” 

Furthermore, Yergeau emphasized the offensive societal implications of these words in that they subconsciously favor a neurotypical standard of intelligence. This notion therefore criticizes and mocks the disabled community for neurological and social differences that are out of their control. 

“They also represent really stock and horrifying notions of intelligence, or they value like this able bodied, neuro-typical form of intelligence as if that's the pinnacle to which people need to reach their achievements,” Yergeau said. “It devalues the human dignity and worth of people with disabilities”.

The ableist connotations of offensive disability language make disassociating their historical and current usage virtually impossible. The history behind “retarded” and its similar insulting counterparts cause them to be much more than just words. Because of their origins as legitimate medical terms, their association with intellectual disabilities appears to be somewhat indestructible. And when we recognize inevitable complexity, the goal shifts: Rather than waste our time attempting to justify adjustable linguistic habits, we need to actively educate ourselves and each other on the damaging impact of our diction and how we can be more inclusive of frequently silenced communities in our language choices.

Unfortunately, we know this is easier said than done. Not everyone is willing to welcome corrections to their speech with open arms. Those stuck in their ways seem to eternally loop back to their desire to remain uncensored, and it can feel like an endless losing battle with the public at large.  

Grappling with this issue has proven to require long term social change and cannot be completely eradicated by a singular law or voice. Society’s deep-seated resistance to diverging from neurotypical standards, as shown in our obsession with offensive slang, allows offensive language to persevere through generations. I continue to see countless friends, significant others and even family members use “retarded,” “autistic” (in a distinctly slang context) and “sped” in their everyday language.

And maybe on the surface, I somewhat understand them. It’s human nature to seek independence and reject unwanted restrictions. Moreover, people who may crave immediately rewarding behavioral changes can struggle with understanding the long term effects of their language. Upon my recent discovery that common terms such as “dumb”, “stupid” and “idiot” have problematic ties to disability oppression similar to “retarded,” I am embarrassed to say that my immediate instinct was to justify my previous usage with any argument I could devise. But thinking of Noah’s kind voice reminded me once more to improve my actions rather than defend them to protect my pride — especially when its impact hurts a community in a way I will never be able to fully understand myself.  

Regardless of my lack of first-hand experience with intellectual disabilities, I do my best to force myself out of my comfort zone and confront friends, family and even strangers about their language use in front of me. I have asked people ranging from coworkers to friends to a random girl in my dorm’s communal bathroom to refrain from using “retarded” or “autistic” to describe someone who is or something that is medically neither of those things. It’s terrifying to put myself out there regarding such a controversial subject, but my experiences with Noah remind me that this will always be a worthy fight. 

To dive deeper into the topic and hear from a more first-hand perspective, I had the privilege of speaking to Best Buddies member Anne Moler, who has a speech processing disorder. Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating meaningful relationships between those with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

As someone with a disability herself, Moler vulnerably reflected on her experiences with hearing offensive disability language in her daily life. 

“It makes me have thoughts in my head about myself thinking I’m stupid and dumb, and I know that’s not true,” she told me. “I know that everyone with disabilities did not ask for these disabilities. They just were born with them or got them later in life and we want to be treated like everyone else wants to be treated. All we want is inclusion and respect.”

LSA sophomore Lydia Goff, Best Buddies treasurer, shared her experience with me as both an ally for the disabled community and an active force in promoting inclusion at the University. She emphasized the imperative role of highlighting disabled voices as much as possible. 

“It’s so important that we elevate the voices of people with disabilities because it’s not about being a voice for the voiceless,” she said. “It’s about who has the microphone.”

In order to truly become aware of the concerns surrounding disability language, we need to elevate disabled voices themselves. It is the people like Yergeau, Moler and Noah who we need to be listening to. It is the people who have experienced what I never have that can wake us up and guide us on the path to a more equitable and inclusive society.  

It is time for us to act as if we each have a Noah of our own coming into our rooms each morning. It is time for us to act as if each of us have a personal vexation for the offensive contexts in which our words are used. 

It is time to wake up.