“It really gets to me,” said my son, checking his phone as I was putting his socks on.
“Words… stuff like this…” He read me a passage from social media. I immediately saw what he meant. It was story about a little girl with a beautiful voice. It was a touching enough tale, without the need of the writer to add pathos. ‘Despite her disabilities’ we were told, she sings like an angel.
I could see my son’s point, but he expounded anyway. Why should having a disability mean that she shouldn’t have a lovely voice? Doubtless the writer was only trying to add an extra dimension to her talent. Without any doubt at all there had been no thought of marginalising any further a young lady already labelled as disabled…a word that means broken, unfit for use, rendered powerless… It was simply a figure of speech with no harm intended or implied. Yet the implication is clear, somewhere in the writer’s mind, there was surprise that a disabled child could sing so well.
What struck me once again was how many preconceptions and prejudices are built into our language. They may not even be our own, just ‘figures of speech’ for which we have few, or no, alternatives; phrases we have learned growing up and have simply accepted as being the norm because that is what everyone around us says, without ever thinking of the underlying implications.
One of the problems lies in how easy it is to hurt or offend a listener. You may know what you mean… they can only know what they see and hear. While we are not responsible for another’s reaction to our words, we are solely responsible for what we say and how.
Disability is something my son and I have become quite sensitive to over the past few years. We don’t jump on every imagined slight or slur, for the simple reason that we too have used those exact same figures of speech ourselves, often still do, without ever realising what effect they have on either our listeners or our outlook. It isn’t just disability though; in any area where there is room for prejudice… race, colour, religion, ideology, sexual orientation, age or gender… we have words and phrases that invisibly separate ‘them’ from ‘us’. Most of the time, their use is unconscious and completely innocent of offense… no more than a habitual pattern of words.
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