What’s the Word?

Advocate, Community Participation, Courage, Disability, Education, Inclusion, Inspiration, Movie Reviews, People with Disabilities, Special Education No Comments »

There is a new film released entitled “My Idiot Brother.” Following the current, intense battle against the use of the word “retarded,” I wonder if the use of this pejorative term will attract the same attention as the R word. Is idiot different from retarded?

When I first began my studies in special education, I learned the terms historically used to identify persons who had intellectual disabilities. The terms used were imbecile, idiot, and moron. After years of usage, these words became offensive and were changed to severely retarded, moderately retarded, and mildly retarded. Initially they were useful in identifying levels of disability and in planning educational programs. They also became used as hurtful words, slung at people in anger or rejection, such as “You idiot!”

See the connection? Whatever the term, as long as we remain insensitive to people who are vulnerable, those who have disabilities, and those who are unable to fight back, we will use terms in inappropriate and unkind ways.

Rather than fighting the word, let us fight the deeper problem – attitude. I think the answer is another R word: respect. In our family, we have words that we do not use. In addition to the words referred to above, we add “stupid” and “dumb.”

Billy asks me why we don’t use those words. I reply, “Because those words make people feel bad.” If we can teach that idea, we won’t have to stage battles to obliterate each objectionable word that comes along. And they will come along if we continue to believe that the word is the problem.

I, for one, will not see “My Idiot Brother.”

My Brother’s Courage

Independent Living, Parents, People with Disabilities, Siblings 11 Comments »
Billy Schulz Shovels Snow for His Mother

Billy Schulz Shovels Snow for His Mother

The bad weather we have had recently requires determination and courage and extra hard work for many of us. Billy’s service to me inspired his sister, Mary de Wit, to compose this poem for us.

My Brother’s Courage

My brother’s courage grips my heart these ways:
He concentrates on lacing tight his boots,
Assembles hat and gloves and arctic suit,
And with resolve, he steps into the haze.
His mission is to fetch the frozen news,
(This, after warming Mother’s shoulder pad,
Insuring she her phone and coffee had.)
He, cautiously, his icy way pursues.
His life is full of fear. Afraid to fall
On snow — or tumbling from a vista deck—
Offending, being dumb, bouncing a check…
Still every day he faces: smiling, tall.
From his perspective he might call us this:
Retarded, learning slowly who he is.

© 2011 Mary de Wit

Good News!

Advocate, Community Participation, Disability, Down Syndrome, Education, Inspiration, Siblings No Comments »
Jane and Billy Schulz heard good news about Rosa's Law.

Jane and Billy Schulz heard good news about Rosa's Law.

U. S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski from Maryland announced that her bill introduced to eliminate the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal education,  health and labor laws passed the Senate on Thursday night by unanimous consent.

This is big!

For months people have been blogging, emailing, and twittering about the misuse of the “R” word. If you would like the background and my response to this effort, you may look at my earlier blog on the “R” word.

Called “Rosa’s Law,” the bill changes the phrase “mentally retarded” to “an individual with an intellectual disability” in health,  education and labor law. Senator Mike Enzi, a co-sponsor of the bill, states that “The bill is simple in nature but profound in what it will do when it is enacted. For far too long we have used hurtful words like ‘mental retardation’ or ‘ MR’ in our federal statutes to refer to those living with intellectual disabilities. While the way people feel is important, the way people are treated is equally important. Rosa’s Law will make a greatly-needed change that should have been made well before today – and it will encourage us to treat people the way they would like to be treated.”

The passage of this law does not guarantee that people will cease to use pejorative terms to describe those who have disabilities, but it is a start. Local and federal agencies will be required to use the new term, as will school personnel. I remember, as a special educator, having to inform parents that their child had been identified as having mental retardation; I also remember their reactions. I hope that this new term will be kinder and more readily accepted. However, there will always be a need to insure that children with disabilities of any kind are treated with respect, regardless of the label used.

I think the most important aspect of this law is the way it was initiated and voted into law. The inspiration for the law came from the actions of a family whose daughter, Rosa, was diagnosed with Down syndrome and labeled retarded at school. The mother teamed up with other parents and her state delegate to introduce a bill to change the terminology in her home state law. A hearing on the implications of changing the law was held prior to consideration at the Maryland  General Assembly.

At the hearing, the testimony that had the greatest impact was given by Rosa’s 11-year-old brother. He said “What you call people is how you treat them. What you call my sister is how you will treat her. If you believe she’s ‘retarded,’ it invites taunting, stigma. It invites bullying and it also invites the slammed doors of being treated with respect and dignity.”

This story is a perfect example of effective citizen advocacy, according to Senator Mikulski. She said that this family “pulled together to pull us all to another way of thinking. They fought for the respect and dignity of a loved one. The more than 6 million people with intellectual disabilities in America deserve that same respect and dignity.”

A similar bill has been introduced in the House and has 63 co-sponsors. The law does not affect any services, rights, responsibilities or educational opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.

There is no end to what we can accomplish when we pull together!

Do you think this law will make a difference?

Labels are For Jars

Disability 4 Comments »

Or so I thought. Until I re-entered the public schools after the passage of the Law for Education of Handicapped Children. I was fired up! Now I could manage my resource room without traditional, sometimes offensive, labels. Instead of labeling the children, I would specify the skills they needed and group them accordingly. Good idea.

The first memorandum I received that year asked me to identify my students as to their disabilities, such as learning disabled, mentally retarded, visually impaired, etc. The explanation stated that the labels would determine the type of funding that would be awarded. I also discovered that in working with classroom teachers and other professionals the label was necessary in developing appropriate teaching strategies. So labels are not just for jars; they are essential for delivering necessary services to children with disabilities (another label).

One way society has dealt with the issue of labels is to change them (e.g from “deaf” to “hearing impaired”). A more lasting change, one that should always be used, is called “people first.” Thus, a person with a disability might be referred to as someone with a learning disability, or a child with autism, rather than a learning disabled student or an autistic child.

I recently read an article describing a research study, in which there were two groups, one of which was referred to as “the autistics.” I also heard a nurse call an infant with Down syndrome “a Downs baby.” Such language infers that the disability defines the person rather than describing an attribute of the person. It may sound silly, but I can identify with it. I have diabetes, but don’t call me “a diabetic!” That’s not who I am.

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