We use language as a means to transmit ideas. A person has a thought and needs to figure out how to communicate that to others. If a person uses the wrong words, it doesn’t matter how great the ideas were because no one received them. When we use words that offend, it’s like we hit a wall because our message is blocked. There are words that cause some listeners to tune out and when that happens, we aren’t being heard.
Last month, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used the word “retarded” in a private meeting. He’s received great criticism for his insensitivity and Sarah Palin even said he should be fired. Palin’s son has Downs Syndrome and is very passionate about the use of this word. She said, “Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the ‘N-word’ or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities — and the people who love them — is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.”
Emanuel has apologized publicly and privately to Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver for using the word “retarded.” This is not the first time the White House has come under fire for offending this group. In March of 2009, Obama himself made a joke about his bowling skills by referring to them as worthy of the Special Olympics on The Tonight Show.
The word “retarded” is offensive. In the past, it was used frequently and is now often used in slang as a form of slur particularly among young people. That doesn’t excuse its use, however. As our society evolves, so does our language. A person who scores below about a 70 on IQ tests is now called a person with an intellectual disability.
While some object to political correctness, our words matter. We would not call a person who has the flu, “a flu,” so we should not call a person who has paralysis of the legs “paralyzed.” We put the person first rather than the condition. He or she is a person with paralysis. This change in phrasing makes a big difference. A medical condition does not define a person or sum up everything he or she is. This is the reason for the change.
Critical thinkers choose their words carefully because they know if they don’t, they won’t be heard.