Don’t define me by my disability.
I am a girl. A daughter. A sister. A friend. A cousin. A blogger. I work casually at Mamamia. I am a few weeks away from completing the Sydney Blackmores Marathon with the help of my family and friends.
I also happen to have a physical disability – Cerebral Palsy (CP) – which means I use a wheelchair for getting around.
I am many things other than a person with a disability – and yet that is constantly how I am defined. That’s something I have to deal with, and it is one of the reasons why I write a blog in an effort to change public perceptions around the capabilities of people with disabilities.
I am 16 and I am currently studying at high school. With roughly 800 teenagers all in the same place, it’s not surprising that sometimes I hear language I wish I didn’t. And I’m not talking about expletives.
I’m talking about words like retarded and spastic or even cripple to describe someone’s lack of intelligence, behaviour or physical ability.
The type of CP I have is referred to as spastic diplegia. It means tightness in the muscles of the lower body with an effect that varies on the muscles of the upper body as well. Spasticity is tightness in the muscles and can be extremely frustrating.
Hearing someone referred to as a “spastic” because of their erratic behaviour or inability to do something is something that makes my blood boil.
It is used as a playful insult that has no consequences, but what it really does for someone like me is enforces society’s misconception of people with disabilities, whether it be physical or mental.
And then there’s retard.
It’s meant to be a slur that indicates slow mental capacity or understanding and is thrown around just as carelessly as any swear word.
In fact, columnist and writer Ann Coulter decided it would be an eloquent way to describe the inability of President Obama to lead the US for a second term when she tweeted “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard” during a presidential debate back in 2012. This drew immediate criticism and prompted a passionate response from Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens, who was born with Down syndrome.
What does it say about our world today when a highly educated woman like Coulter thinks it is OK to liken Obama’s ability to lead to that of somebody who struggles with a mental disability?
Don’t judge because of a wheelchair or an extra chromosome. Yes, we may not be as physically capable. Our brains may not function in the same way. But that does not mean we are dumb, or that we don’t want the same things in life.
For all you know, someone with CP may have the scientific ability to cure cancer — but the world will never know if we continue to define and box in people by things beyond their control.
If we continue to use words like “cripple”, “spastic” or “retard,” society is only stifling people like me. Making people like me to hide away from the world when it’s very likely we have valuable and powerful things to say or contribute.
By stopping the use of these words and educating people we are ending a tsunami of ignorance and judgement, allowing acceptance to finally blossom.
The person who coined the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” probably had the best intentions.
But you know what? That saying is wrong. So very wrong. Words can inflict great wounds.
So, please, think about what you say before you say it.