Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday musings: an exercise in patience

Last Saturday night, A. and I had dinner at a nearby Lebanese restaurant. What started out as a pleasant dinner ended up being a test in patience and acceptance for me.

There was a foursome right next to us, seemingly of the yuppie twentysomething set. One of the girls in the group kept using the "R"-word as part of her conversational/slang vocabulary. And by R-word I mean the words "retard" and "retarded" - as in "what a retard" or "that's so retarded". I would say she used it at least 3 times within less than a 10-minute period.

I quickly felt the heat rising to my cheeks, and my heart started to race.

There's not a lot of things I get angry about. But as a special educator, I do feel strongly about this issue.

One of my first lessons in special education came from a parent herself, who responded with so much grace, compassion, and understanding towards a not-so-good decision that I made with regard to the instruction of her child with a disability exceptionality. It's something I will never forget, as a fresh-out-of-college graduate then (thank you, Mrs. K., wherever you are). This actually happened before my formal training in early childhood special education, and compared to everything I've learned about curriculum and instruction and behavioral methods etc etc, I would say the lesson I learned back then is by far the most important. A human being is a human being. It's diverse ability, not just disability.

Probably the second most important thing I learned, when I finally went to graduate school, is "person-first language." At the time I went to undergrad x number of years ago, I had not heard of such a concept. So learning about "person-first language" made an impact on me. Here's what the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council says on the matter:

"Put the person first in word and thought. Emphasize the person rather than the disability."

Person-first language means that we see the person first and not the label. Truly, a child is a child first and a child with a disability second. That goes for any individual regardless of age, diagnosis, etc. So, we would say, "a child with Down Syndrome" and not a "Downs kid". It also means we emphasize the ability and not the handicap or limitation; for example, "wheelchair user" rather than "wheelchair bound" or "confined to a wheelchair." A few years ago the county boards of Developmental Disabilities in our state removed "mental retardation" from their agency name - it used to read "Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities." Now they are "Board of Developmental Disabilities." The terminology "mental retardation" is now being phased out.

I actually got into a semi-debate with someone else about this topic. The other person I was talking to said, "What does it matter? It means the same thing. You're just trying to be politically correct."

Well sure, why not be PC and appropriate? But more than being PC, it's about dignity and respect. Our language is a reflection of our attitudes.

"Our attitudes affect outcomes."

So back to the incident at dinner. There I was, trying to enjoy my Lebanese jibneh and garlicky spinach, but each time I heard her use the r-word I felt the heat rise to my cheeks again. Thank goodness A. was there to calm me down. So I took some deep, albeit garlicky (sorry, TMI) breaths. She wasn't doing it intentionally, after all. She just didn't know. The r-word has just become part of the conversational slang, perhaps so embedded into culture that it is no longer questioned. But the good thing is, many do question and challenge that.

I seriously considered approaching her calmly and diplomatically - not in an accusatory way but in an increasing-awareness-kind-of-way. A. on the other hand thought I should just let it go; he put things into perspective for me as he always does, and reminded me that it was just a lack of awareness. I wondered, had I not had interactions with children/individuals/relatives with disabilities, would I have known not to use those words?

And, there was a bottle of wine on their table after all, and who knows if that bottle was their first or fifth. They weren't rowdy by any means, but I also tend to avoid confrontation, let alone a confrontation with someone who's had an unknown number of drinks. I also don't want to appear high and mighty. So I didn't do anything else, except continue with my deep breaths.  I am much more comfortable keeping the peace, though I wonder sometimes if I compromise for the sake of harmony. And I do tend to replay the scene in my mind over and over later, imagining what I should have said.

Once again, our language is a reflection of our attitudes. Please, let's take the r-word out of our vocabulary.


Ok, I'm stepping off my soapbox now. Thanks for letting me have my little moment of advocacy (and a moment of venting).

What would you have done if you were in my situation? Would you have talked to a stranger about not using offensive language, intentionally or not?

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Anne said...

good question ... i react similarly when i hear someone use the r-word. but would i correct someone? being that i also have a non-confrontational nature, i would have let it go, but would think of so many ways i could have approached the person, and what i could have said etc etc, hehe the thing is, we can never control the outcome. what if the person reacts negatively? that would probably make me more upset than i already was.

Mia said...

Hi Anne, thanks for sharing your thoughts... yes that is exactly what I was worried about. I didn't want to cause trouble or create a scene but at the same time, I felt like I should have said something. Somehow I feel like I chickened out... and in a way, I feel like I failed to advocate when I could have.

Jen said...

So timely ... I'm at a conference right now and have attended several social justice sessions that address this. One interesting perspective was to see yourself in that person ... we have all said such uninformed/hurtful statements out of ignorance/stereotypical beliefs and will likely find ourselves in a place of ignorance/stereotypical thinking in the future. So, if we see ourselves in that person, we are more likely to respond with compassion rather than with anger. An interesting and useful perspective that I will try to apply.

Mia said...

Jen - oh my goodness, that is yoga speak (i.e., union)! Thank you for your comment. As I think about this incident more, perhaps the reason I was angry is because of my anger at my past decision about a child (which I wrote about in this same post). So just like a lack of awareness caused this person to use those words, similarly it was a lack of awareness that led me to that decision I made.

Thank you for sharing this lesson; this certainly gives me more to think about.

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