From a young age, children are often taught that their words don’t impact others. Many of our students believe that their words lack meaning as well. Students are using harmful and dehumanizing words, like “retarded” or “autistic” every day. This can no longer be tolerated, as it sets up an environment for bullying, ignorance, and ableism to flourish.
For most students, their speech is simply a result of ignorance. According to the Special Olympics of North Carolina, “retarded” used to be a medical term to understand and characterize people with significant intellectual impairment. However, it is now used as an insult, especially towards people with special needs.
These words have long-lasting effects. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, 10 studies found that students with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers. Bullying is a broad category, which includes verbal and physical abuse, threats, written statements, and any other action that are considered harmful or humiliating. Although the word “bullying” itself is most often associated with physical assault, the most common form is actually verbal.
The use of harmful words, no matter how uneducated or ignorant, is inexcusable. To introduce someone or refer to them by their disability, is dehumanizing. Diagnoses are not defining characteristics and should not be used as an introduction. They are not an “autistic person”, they are a person before any disability. A mother, father, brother, sister, friend, classmate. People with good days and bad days, memories and desires, hopes and dreams. The idea of putting the emphasis on the person instead of the disability is called People-First Language. People-First Language is saying “the kid that has Downs Syndrome” instead of “that Downs kid”. It is usually unnecessary to mention the disability at all when referring to a person, but if necessary, People-First Language is the respectful way to approach it. Disabilities are not defining characteristics, just another part of the story.
Some argue that in this day and age it is unrealistic to be careful with what is or isn’t said. But there are more respectful words that can be used without dehumanizing others. People-First Language is one of many ways to be respectful and choose words that have a positive effect rather than tear people down.
Changing the way we speak, in either rephrasing sentences or avoiding harmful words, can make a huge difference in the lives of others. Laziness and ignorance are not excuses for mistreating others. Humans should be treated like humans.
Written by Hanna Gaither, Staff Writer