Using Words to Hurt and Using Words to Heal


March 6, was the annual awareness day for the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, designed to eliminate the R-word from everybody’s vocabulary. Terri Mauro a tireless advocat and blogger has suggested 225 alternatives in case you just can’t think of any other word to denigrate your own or someone else’s performance.  Her alternatives to retarded include: “airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, blunderer, bonehead, boob, bubblehead, buffoon, bungler, butterfingers, child, chowderhead, chucklehead, clod, clodhopper, clown, crackpot, cuckoo, and damn-fool” and that’s just the beginning of the list.

            When I went to Mass last weekend, the annual reading of John chapter 9, “The Man Born Blind” was accompanied by the usual singing of “Amazing Grace”.  Of course the line in the hymn “was blind but now I see” means metaphorically speaking and blindness in the Gospel is used as a metaphor for lacking insight.

            That same weekend I heard a radio program point out that the first few days in March were called “blind days” because the weather was dark and rotten.

            Constant association of a disability word like retarded or blind with the metaphorical meanings of stupid and lacking insight hurts in two ways.  It hurts emotionally in the self perceptions of those of us who have the cognitive or sensory disability.  Being called stupid (even in a beautiful song) makes me hurt and angry.  Then others’ perceptions of us are shaped by our language.  People talk to a sighted person next to me instead of me on a daily basis.  If I ask them “Do you think I cannot hear or think because I’m blind?” most would say “of course not” but that’s the damage done by loose associations of meaning and metaphorical meaning in the back of our minds I’m convinced.  

            I’m not suggesting avoiding disability words.  I’m blind, not visually-challenged or differently abled.  Somebody who sees more than I do but doesn’t have normal vision is called “visually-impaired”. 

            In addition to using disability words accurately, consider the following ideas for ways to use words to heal:


“May I help?” accepts that that person can accept or decline and will tell you how to help;

“Sure” or “no problem” when help is requested lets the help requester know that interdependence is okay with you;

“I’m sorry” when you’ve said something stupid as we all do.  Those two words are enough. Don’t spend five minutes apologizing;

“Would you be interested in…” asks the person with a disability to participate or help.  There’s no better way of showing you think of them as your equal.

            Thanks for trying to use words to heal, not hurt.