Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me.
For this Disability Blog Carnival on ADJECTIVES, I knew I wanted to write about adjectives like “handicapped,” “crippled,” and “lame.” But this didn’t all coalesce in my mind until I was at Target today. I was in line, and the cashier, who was an older woman, was flirting with this young kid who also worked there, “razzing” him about his earring. He was a very tall and lanky and kind of awkward. After he walked away, she turned to me and said, laughing, “They call him Cripple.”
Everything came to a screeching halt. My mouth fell open. I didn’t say anything; I was too shocked. As I left, I wished I would have said any number of things to her. Maybe about my son—he uses forearm crutches and braces to walk; would she have used that “affectionate term” if she saw my beautiful boy? Maybe I should have said, “What you just said equates to nigger, thank you.” I have never said nigger out loud until today, when I described this story to my husband. Some words hurt too bad.
Just like some black people may try to do when they use the “n word,” some people with disabilities use the word crip, attempting to take back the word’s power. The thinking may be, outwardly or maybe unconsciously, "I will be the one to use that hurtful word. Then I have the power, not them." Whether this works, I can’t say for sure. I just know I don’t like “nigger” or “cripple” being used by anyone.
Handicapped is another one. There is a story that the word originated from disabled “beggars,” with their “caps in hand” looking for a handout. I know this isn’t the true origin, but still, this word bothers me. We have a disabled placard for our car, and sometimes we say we’re looking for a “handicapped space.” “Disabled space” somehow doesn’t sound right. But “handicapped” does bother me. The same thing with special needs—whose needs aren’t special to them—and even disabled. Kathie Snow at Disability is Natural writes: “’Disabled’ is also not appropriate. Traffic reports often say, ‘disabled vehicle.”
Two words that are used frequently and carelessly, often by young kids, are retard and lame. I remember last graduation season, a kid named Soeren Palumbo gave this speech about kids using the word “retard” toward his sister. He said, “Your mockery… is nothing but another form of hate."
“Lame” is also thrown around like it doesn’t mean anything or like it’s funny. A few weeks ago, I noticed that when I sent emails on AOL, a signature was being added to all my messages without my knowing it. This signature line was The Famous, the Infamous, the Lame - in your browser. Get the TMZ Toolbar Now!
I wrote to AOL complaining that I did not appreciate being forced to use this word ever, but especially when sending emails to disability studies groups and groups of parents of kids with disabilities. A tech person sent me a link to disable the signatures but of course did not discuss the political and social ramifications of using the L word.
Now, my son is 4 years old, and the adjectives that hurt him so far are nowhere near as harsh as the ones that hurt me. He is shorter than average for his age, and he has told me that kids at school say he’s “little” and “too little.” I watched him recently climbing up a blow-up moonbounce at a birthday party, and the other kids shouted, “Go, little Jordan! Go, little Jordan!” He smiled, but I know how that word hurts him. To think of how he’ll feel when he hears these other “ableist” words—cripple, lame, handicapped—flung at him… well, I just can’t describe how much my heart will break.
The only thing I can try to do is to let him know the meanings of these words and why people might use them, from my limited conception of why this is. I don't think I will use that platitude about the sticks and stones. I think he is already too advanced to believe that. So far he gets “everyone is different.” That is a frequent conversation at our house. He came home from camp the other day and said two kids there use wheelchairs. He continued: “Some people use wheelchairs, some people use walkers, some people use ski poles—that’s me!—and some people walk without anything. Everyone is different.” I think I might try to get him to change that to unique.