I believe words are powerful although it is our attitude that makes a word either offensive or complimentary.
A good friend of mine once received a call from her son’s teacher explaining he had sworn in class. He had just joined a school with a specialist unit for deaf kids. The teacher described how he used the sign for ‘shit’ in the classroom and that it was completely unacceptable. It then transpired that he used it to ask to go to the toilet. When my friend heard the description of the sign she realised it was simply what they had been taught as the sign for needing a poo.
In their household that sign, or word, wasn’t offensive because everyone understood it to mean the same thing; going to the toilet.
During my nurse training, I read words like retarded, spastic and handicapped in textbooks. They were clinical words to describe a condition. So what happened to make them unacceptable?
Each of the above words describes an aspect, character or profession of a person. None of them alone gives a fair description of someone, yet words like Handicapped, Immigrant and Rich are tainted by our attitudes.
During the short time I lived in Uganda, I discovered being called fat was a compliment. It meant a person was wealthy enough to have more food than they needed, and if anyone was lucky enough to reach the age of 70 then they were considered old and given the utmost respect. Age brought with it wisdom and honour.
We use the words old and fat too. In real terms they have the same meaning, ‘overweight’ and ‘no longer young’. But in society today, they are tainted by our attitudes and often spoken in an insulting way.
Today, instead of retarded or spastic, books use words such as learning difficulties, special needs and a person with a disability. In twenty years time will these words too may be considered offensive?
The negativity of our words depends on our attitudes, not the letters they contain.
Retarded is derogatory because it is used to deride someone, suggesting they are stupid.
Imagine with me, a world where words to describe a person with a learning difficulty had the same esteem and reverence as a word describing an Oxford Graduate or Second World War Veteran.
We give words their power.
Our challenge is to change the attitudes of the people behind the words rather than the words themselves. Only when society starts speaking about physical and cognitive disability with value, dignity and admiration, will such words forever cease to be offensive.