In a general conversation among friends and acquaintances we might not think through the ramifications of our words--we flow with the conversation and speak off the cuff. When we're not in front of the camera, like politicians, comedians or celebrities, that's probably okay--if we make a gaffe, we can fix it right then and there or in a follow-up conversation, once we realize we've shown our ass.
But when we're speaking to a group, when we're teaching a class, when we're in front of a camera, when our words should be considered, our position on complex situations worked out in advance, a slip of the tongue can have long term damage not just for ourselves but for the people we've injured with our words, which signal our underlying beliefs.
And so it is especially important when talking about those with disabilities and differences. Our choice of language becomes much more important--and all the more revealing of our underlying biases.
My son Bobby is a wonderful young man--he's sweet, he's funny, and he's got the biggest heart I've ever seen. Injustices towards others wound him to his core and wind him up. He wants to fix the world--make people be nice to others--to stop doing bad things, wrong things, hurtful things. He carries his outrage with him at a low simmer. He is also, although he often spends a lot of time talking, sub-vocalizing, relatively clipped when it comes to answering questions. He is, in other words, a man of few words when few words do the job. He almost always has a smile. He's genuinely concerned about other people and never fails to wish me a good day when I drop him off in the morning to volunteer. He always asks if I had a good day when I pick him up.
He's a joy to be with. But he also has his challenges. He can't write--because he can't spell--but he's clever and gets around it--sending me audio files as text messages. His speech, when he's trying to answer questions or explain, is halting, with stammers and stops as he works hard to find a way to communicate. And yet, these audio files never cease to make me smile--he's accomplished something that is incredibly hard for him, and I am so proud, even when I'm not quite sure what it was he was trying to convey. Did I say he was a joy? He is a miracle. He has battled against stroke damage to his left thalamus, relearned how to walk, to talk, to write, to read. He works each and everyday to find ways around his challenges, and to make a good life for himself--one where he is fulfilled and happy and of service, and he's done incredibly well--he is happy, he is fulfilled, and he is without a doubt of service both at home and in the community.
So when someone thinks of him as limited, even though no harm may be intended, the reality that despite his challenges and his successes, what is more important are the things he can't do, the underlying reality of that message is that he is seen as less than others because of those challenges.
And that, my friends, is bullshit. If you see others as limited, you are seeing them as less than equal. And it doesn't matter if you equivocate and say you have your limitations, too, because your 'limitations' aren't equal to the person you just called limited.
My son is not limited. Neither are my daughters. They have challenges. They have issues they fight to overcome. And that reality, my friends, means they are heroes. They wake up each day knowing they are going to have to work harder to overcome those challenges than most people. And they get up and they do it. Each and every single day.
That's not limited. That's valiant. That's brave. That's courageous. That's something that many people will never understand, never experience, and never be able to appreciate. And it's those people who see those with disabilities as limited who are truly limited.