Monday, September 26, 2011

Words to Live By...

As many of you know, I have gone back to college and am studying Developmental Service Work. The two-year program will give me the skills necessary to support people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities and to say that I am excited about the future would be an understatement.

I am delighted to be meeting new people - even the cell-phone toting young students who fill up the back three rows of every class. Their enthusiasm is contagious and while their dependency on technology baffles and irritates me, I admire their compassion and open, trusting hearts.

I am also delighted and amazed at how my perception of the world is changing - and rapidly. When the course began, several professors warned us that we would discover biases within ourselves that we'd previously ignored. I scoffed then, thinking that I was without bias towards people with disabilities.

I was wrong.

Despite my own best efforts, I too have been harbouring bias toward those whose struggle to fit in is 10 times worse than my teenaged-angst ever was. Until this program, I wasn't aware that the very WORDS I use to describe someone, or something, showed those biases.

"Lucy's autistic son," for example, puts the focus and the whole of my impression of Lucy's son firmly on autism's shoulders. Better I should say, "Lucy's son, who has autism," or better still, "Lucy's son."

Some weeks back, I learned that the word backwards comes from the phrase, "in the back wards" and describes where not-so-long-ago, psychiatric patients were hidden from view. Tucked into the very back rooms of asylums nation-wide, those doctors deemed "mentally unstable" were destined to spend their days roaming about, hurting and virtually forgotten. Caged.

I began to wonder which other words I use - daily, without reserve, without thinking - that might show a bias I hate to think I've had or worse, shown. I didn't have to wonder long before I realized that my everyday speech is peppered with jargon I'd be loathe to have my new teachers or classmates hear.

Idiot. Spaz. Dummy. Schizo. Gone mental. Loonybin. Maniac. Crazy. You're insane.  Retarded.

Are you cringing yet, dear reader? I am, just typing them out and these are only the words that *I've* used, not the dozens of others we listed in class one day, most of us sinking lower and lower in our seats as each offensive and derogatory word got called out and written down.

Wanna know what's even worse? I've said ALL of these words in FRONT OF MY CHILDREN.

It shames me that these are words and phrases that I, a lover of words and the keeper of little boy hearts, have used use.

Too often. Too forcefully. Too without thought-fully.

So, I have been making a clear and conscious effort to rid my speech of language which could  misinform, misrepresent, hurt or worse, do all three. When I am at school, it's easier to remember to stand guard against my own tongue. Easier, but not easy as I am opinionated and given to speech-before-thought already. But, day by day, everything is changing.

As I listen to the language modelled by my professors, all of whom seem called to this work, it gets easier.

As I feel old thought-patterns and deeply-held biases fall off and melt away, it gets easier.

As I learn about the nature of disabilities and how vast and wide and broad the scope is, it gets easier.

And while I happily shed the skin of the person I have been, I am learning so many, many things.

I am being taught new words and concepts like inclusion and people-centred  and support and responsibility and community.

My new language is called "People First Language" and I am wrapping my heart around all of it.

Interestingly, by challenging my brain to substitute a different, more suitable word for "retarded" I've been given a real chance to stretch, both as a writer...and as a human.

And as a mother.

Because once I'd isolated the hurtful words I use every day, I discovered even more of them.

I found that on average, I call Matthew a "Silly Turkey" 15 times a day. It's an affectionate nickname, you say? Well, yes, it is. Except when last week, I wrapped it in venom and spat it out when he fumbled a chore I'd been nagging him to complete.

And it's not just the words I choose, it's the way I offer them to my VERY impressionable young mimics children:

I chide and nag and yell things like, "Seriously? Do you seriously believe that YOU are right and I, your mother, am wrong?" (Insert incredulous tone edged with blistering sarcasm. Aim it at frustrated and weepy five-year-old)

Yes, he nodded, miserably. Yes, you are wrong, Mummy.

He was right.

I was wrong. Wrong in both concept and delivery.

So, a month into my new life as mother, wife and student, I have learned that...well... I have a LOT to learn.

And as always, it seems as though my children are my best and finest teachers.


We can change the world.

And you?
How do you react to learning unpleasant truths about the world?


  1. How honest is this. But what a journey. And it's not even a month.

    So glad I can go on it with you. I'm guilty of many (especially "idiotic" and "insane.") Every time I hear the word "retarded" or "gay" uttered in my classroom, though, I offer an alternative. I don't think it really helps in the long run, but maybe someone is listening.

    Love your writing, Liz.

  2. Thanks, Leanne. It's uncomfortable, this honesty, I'll admit. But I feel compelled to share. It's both my gift and my downfall - hee, hee!

    Were you as surprised to realize how often you use words loaded with such meaning? "Backwards" stunned me.


  3. Ooh yeah, guilty. Each word in this context makes me cringe. I need to check my language. Thanks for the reminder, Liz!

  4. Sigh. My friend, I think we're all guilty of using words that hurt, whether we intend to or not.

    I needed reminding, too. Heck, I need reminding every day - it's partly why I wrote this post. It keeps me accountable.

    Thanks for popping over, fellow Liebster lover!


  5. Guilty here, as well. Words are powerful. I've learned the hard way that what you say to someone can stick with them forever. Good or bad.

    Great post. :)

  6. Thanks, Annie! Words are indeed powerful - I hope that people remember the GOOD stuff I said instead of the other, but it's always easier somehow, to recall the bad.

  7. As always, this is beautifully written, Liz. Backwards blows me away. I believe passionately in inclusion and kindness and respect for others, but my words are still too often hurtful and careless.
    It's nice to know you're out there helping to change the world. ox


  8. Hi Pam - backwards haunted me for days. Hence the decision to find and count how many words like it exist in my world. Too many, it seems.

    As for changing the world, well, I'll do my best! Thanks for reading!


  9. Liz! Yesterday, we were talking about beauty -- the concept of it in Comp 101, and the cultural differences associated with the word. How women -- if they are called beautiful -- can accept a compliment from a man or woman, but how for men, it is less comfortable to be called beautiful by other men.

    One student admitted that if someone said he was beautiful, he would say thank you, but he would never call another man beautiful because it would make him sound like a fag.

    You could have heard a pin drop.

    I have a two gay students in the class.

    That was an uncomfortable moment -- but "fag" or "faggot" have as much of a negative connotation as retard or mental or schizo, etc. And I had to navigate those waters. It was tricky. And scary!

    I asked the student to reword his answer so that he was not using language that was negative. He could still express his feelings, but using the word "fag" was not acceptable.

    He thought about it and revised. "I would be uncomfortable calling another man beautiful because I would be concerned that that person would think I was interested in him sexually."


    That diffused the tense moment.

    And it led to some good dialogue on the the topic about what makes us comfortable and why Americans are so uncomfortable about some words where other cultures (the French & Italians, for example) do not have negative associations with the word "beautiful" (based on the source material we were using).

    Language is a slippery eel, Liz. You are learning and you in becoming more sensitive, you will -- in fact -- change the world, starting with your own little people.

  10. Oh, wow, Renee. I love that you handled things with grace, immediately and in the moment. It matters. I love more that you thought to come here and share this story with me/readers.

    Thank you. For all of it.