In our last Health Skill Share at the Welcome Ministry, we talked about all the ways in which our guests experience oppression, and resources to come together to oppose oppression. One of the topics that the group choose to focus on was how being labeled with a mental health disability or cognitive disability was one locus of oppression in their lives. We talked about some ways to come together to work against specific forms of this oppression, and ways to challenge the assumptions and policies behind it on societal/systemic levels.
One topic that came up was the way in which people are dismissed by being called "crazy" or "retarded." This was often part of a cycle of oppression, which at this level comes down to individuals being intentionally cruel or demeaning. A less-obvious manifestation of this use of violent language is when these words are used to denigrate ideas or persons who would not otherwise be labeled as such-- big words meaning when things are said like "that's so retarded" or "you're crazy!"
What happens when these words that have real meanings specific to certain labeled individuals are transferred to metaphors means that the assumptions behind those labels become suddenly clearer. Try asking next time you hear someone using crazy or retarded "what do you mean by that?" Common answers would be "bad," "out of control," "stupid" (itself a metaphor referring to the same group of people), or other negative connotations. But rather than just simply expressing a negative thought, the transferring back happens too--those who have been labeled with the term that is being used are then re-traumatized with those connotations with the extra force of acquired meanings.
And in case you're wondering what this has to do with the serious oppressions that seem so much bigger than language, lets look at the history of the label retarded. Did you know that IQ tests (still the measure for the current label of "mental retardation") were devised for the purpose of weeding out immigrants and people of color as well as disabled people in the US? Not just incidentally, but on purpose, the tests that were created were biased in terms of experience and class, racist and clasist so that science could legitimize the assumed inferiority of people deemed not to belong in America. The racist, classist, and ableist history of institutionalization reads that a label of mental illness or retardation was one way to get rid of people inconvenient to those in power by moving them out of sight, forcing sterilization, inflicting physical and mental abuse, and taking away all choice and control. *See resources on Eugenics below
These words are used as direct abuse, too, when someone is taunted, battered (often without protection of Hate Crime laws), bullied, raped, and belittled due to their label or the assumption of a label. People inflicting violence (verbal or physical) don't check IQ scores before the violence, but rather make assumptions based on society's stereotypes, which are strengthened every time these words are used to represent undesirability.
Regarding the homeless and hungry people who we work with, we can ask many of the same questions. Our experience shows that many of the people who are homeless have been labeled as crazy or retarded, hobos or users, or other terms specific to cultural or clasist slurs. We need to ask ourselves why we use the language we do, both informally and when we volunteer/work/participate at the Welcome Ministry.
-How does our language affect what we believe?
-What language is more empowering?
-How can we talk about tough realities without using abusive language or labeling people for life?
-How can our conversations with people help to question the stereotypes that control their options?
-How can each of us use our privilege to advocate with each other when we are labeled or languaged in oppressive ways?
So what can we do?
-Everyone can monitor their own language use and stop using words in ways that lead to abuse. This might require rethinking your associations with these words- if what you mean is "worthless" and what comes out of your mouth is "retarded," you're associating people labeled with retardation as being worthless.
-You can choose to challenge language that is abusive. You can do this in a million ways- politely, in confrontation, screaming, writing, whispering, in a group, alone, by commenting loudly to another person, by asking an advocate to assist you...
If you're uncomfortable with this, practice with a friend, write a short script, or get some of these free "Words Hit Like a Fist" cards. They're almost out, but Jay has ordered some which should arrive soon.
-You can work with or as self-advocates toward changes in the way that disability labeling happens, work to change public assumptions, work to help youth with disabilities develop positive self-esteem and pride, end institutionalization, or
redefine the labels. Try seeking groups like Advocating Change Together, The Icarus Project, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, TASH, People First chapter, or your local Center for Independent Living.
Inspiration and Resources:
Video from ACT in Minneapolis about the use of the word "retard," interviewing community members, self-advocates, disability industry workers, and family members. See the 10 min. clip online or order the 29 min. full version.
Blog post from Self-Advocacy Movement participant Dave Hingsburger about his use of the cards above.
ACT resource list about Tropic Thunder controversy.
Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of MN has much good information about the contributions and options of people with disabilities in the community.
Anti-Oppression activist Eli Clare thinking about the response to "retard" as hate speech, Eli Clare excerpt about evaluating privilege, and Eli's first book Exile and Pride which talks a lot about coming to terms with abusive language and oppressive assumptions.
Ballastexistenz blog from autistic community on topic of the use of "Retard"
Facing History articles about the legacy of eugenics
History online museum exhibits about disability and eugenics
article about eugenics and disability
More resources about the histories of eugenics movements
Race in Science resources