Monday, January 18, 2010

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can REALLY hurt me

On top of all the discussion (and it has been such good discussion) about disability and cures, what it means to be human, the value of a life lived with Down Syndrome, the human need for "perfection", the past week has also opened up an exchange about the use of the word "retarded". Let me come out strongly and vigourously against that word, right off the bat.

What arose this past week revolved around the use of the word "retarded" in a CBC radio comedy sketch. Someone (thank goodness!) wrote in to express their disappointment that the CBC would allow the use of such a hurtful and discriminatory term. In response, a couple of listeners wrote in to oppose that individual's opposition. They suggested that "the problem is not with the word, but with people's attitudes". One of them argued that "politically correct language doesn't change the seriousness of conditions like Down's [sic] Syndrome. I would hope that CBC would strive to use language that accurately describes reality rather than language that obscures difficult facts in euphemisms."

The phrase "person with an intellectual disability" is not a euphemism that obscures a difficult truth. People with disabilities suffer such discrimination and marginalization in our society that we don't need to worry about disguising any harsh realities - they know the cruelties of life first hand, and face those harsh realities from the day they are born. Of course, neither is "person with an intellectual disability" a perfect term. For example, it still contains the term "disability", a label with an inherently negative connotation. Who else among us is defined by what we cannot do?

But like all knowledge, language is always evolving. As Silas wrote, "Try reading almost any book written more than 30 years ago without noticing the glaring use of only masculine pronouns, where today we would write "he or she". This change in language both reflected and extended a change in attitudes that took place as our society began to recognize the equality of the sexes. Language changes all the time. Sometimes we have to do it consciously and explicitly, so our language can catch up with our politics." Hopefully someday we will find a way to talk about people with Down Syndrome or people with autism that won't immediately conjure an image of a damaged, limited, less-than-whole individual. Hopefully we will find a way to talk about our people as, well, people. Of course, that will only happen as our attitudes toward these devalued groups of people change, and that change won't happen unless we speak out.

In the meantime, let's follow the example of People First, one of the only advocacy networks for people with intellectual disabilities which is totally run by the people for whom they advocate. For them, people first language is so critical that they chose it for their name. We need to listen to this too-often unheard voice of people with intellectual disabilities, who always have people speak for them and about them, but so rarely have the opportunity or the ability to speak for themselves and actually be heard. (You have to look hard to find folks with intellectual disabilities weighing in on this particular issue. But this five-minute video is a wonderful example of self-advocacy.)

Again, I quote Silas: "The deletion of the words "retard" and "retarded" from the English language is long overdue. These words belong to a bygone era, a time when the medical community, and society, regarded people with disabilities as diseased errors, subhuman. Today they are nothing but schoolyard insults, dripping with hatred and oppression. Sure, some people who use them don't mean it that way, but most do. We should respect the right of people to choose the term that will apply to them. If you wouldn't call someone a "cretin", an "imbecile", or an "idiot" (terms with a similar history as "retarded"), if you wouldn't say "negro" or "Jap", then don't call someone "retarded"."

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Motherlode

So, through a series of connections that are not quite clear to me, my post from Contrarian about a possible "cure" for Down Syndrome was picked up by the New York Times blog on parenting, called Motherlode. Quoting me as well as Dr. Salehi, the author of the original research study, the post asks "If there were a cure for your child that would fundamentally change who he is, would you welcome it?"

Parker Donham, Contrarian blogger (and my father-in-law) contacted me to give me a heads up about the post, in particular to warn me that there were reams of comments on the NYT post, all of which were firmly entrenched in the opposite position to myself. He was afraid I would be hurt. I had no such fear. I know that my position is a minority one. When you throw your lot in with marginalized people, you get marginalized. I understand that. And I would suspect that NYT readers might be particularly unsympathetic to an argument that asserts the value of people with intellectual disabilities.

But booting up my computer the next day and clicking on the Motherlode link, I was surprised by my own reaction to the comments I read. It is not easy to hear people, even strangers, call you selfish, patronizing, uncaring, a bad parent. Especially when people call you that in very articulate, well-written letters to the New York Times. I will admit, I was hurt. I couldn't make it past the first page of comments. And aside from being hurt, I was unsure of what to do next. Do I respond and open myself up to further criticism? Do I ignore it, knowing that the online attention span is even less than the proverbial fifteen minutes? But what about my supposed commitment to advocacy? Do I cut and run as soon as it gets difficult?

Well, thank God for Silas. Just as invested as I am, Silas took the bull by the horns and posted his own comment to the NYT blog. (His is the only comment, by the way, to be highlighted by the author of the original post.) He also contacted other friends and activists to ask them to weigh in on the conversation, in hopes of providing some balance.

If you go the Motherlode blog you can read the original post and the comments. You might even want to register and make your own comment. Following you can read what Silas wrote. And further down in this blog you can read my original post that has caused such a stir.

I should say that I think I am over my original shock and hurt at the harsh critique of my position. I have heard from people, both directly and indirectly, who share my unfortunately minority opinion. And I have seen even more clearly what a dangerous place this world can be for people with intellectual disabilities.

Silas's recent post...

First, the disclosure: I am Jenn Power's husband, father to Jacob and Josh, and son to, the blogger who got all this started. I have spent my adult life living and working intimately with people who have intellectual disabilities.

Many of the contributors to this discussion seem to be imagining a magic pill without risk or side-effect that would remove the intellectual impairment associated with Down Syndrome. Medical treatments like that do not exist. Of course Jenn and I want our children to have every advantage, and the fullness of potential, which is available to them. Our boys have glasses, they have tubes in their ears, they attend school as well as physio-, occupational, and speech therapy, a clinic that focuses on eating difficulties, an adaptive swim program, a youth group, church, friends' birthday parties, etc. I home-schooled them for a year to get ready for regular school. But we would not let an enthusiastic medical researcher take a potential chemical blender to their brains in infancy. Thank you, no. In that sense, our boys are just fine the way they are.

Many of you have posed questions from the imagined viewpoint of a person with a disability: if you had Down Syndrome, wouldn't you want to be "cured"? Can you imagine a person with no legs NOT wanting a treatment that would give him legs? It is a sad observation that the voices of actual people with disabilities are usually absent from discussions of this type (thanks to Ingrid in San Francisco for bucking that trend). In fact, their answers to these questions are often not what you would expect. I first contemplated that idea when I heard a CBC radio piece produced by Dave Hingsburger, a counsellor and disability rights activist in Toronto. Over the course of a two-hour program, Hingsburger talked to many members of the disability community, including people with Down Syndrome, as well as a man who has no legs. At some point in the course of other discussions he asked each person he talked to whether, if presented with a pill that would get rid of their disability, they would take it. Without exception, they all said no.

At the time, this was an earth-shattering notion for me. But the fact is that I know many people who have intellectual disabilities. No-one I know sees themselves as diseased, suffering, or in need of a cure. So who is really imposing their viewpoint here?

Jenn framed her response to this medical research in terms of the benefit she has received from her relationships with people with disabilities, and the benefit society as a whole stands to gain from them. Unfortunately some of you have construed that to mean that people with disabilities should be kept in a limited, suffering state so the rest of us might benefit. Several of you even made the very hurtful comparison between our boys and "therapy animals".

Perhaps it is a symptom of the way people with disabilities are devalued in our society that we so often feel the need to justify them by naming the benefit other people receive from them. No other group in society needs to do this. However, that is not the basis by which we make decisions about our boys' lives. Everything we do (including the hypothetical rejection of experimental brain treatment) for them is with their best interests at heart. And to respond to other posters, we have not forgotten what might happen to our boys when we are no longer around. That is why our whole lives are devoted to people with intellectual disabilities, from our parenting to our professional lives with L'Arche to our involvement in the local school to our involvement in discussions such as this one. A society that recognizes the gifts of people with disabilities is one that goes beyond inclusion and tolerance to real relationship.

People are complicated organisms. Tinkering with one aspect affects a host of others. As a society we tend to overvalue independence and intellectual competence. These things do not bear a linear relationship with happiness or quality of life. There are a lot of independent people who lead very lonely lives. In my experience of people with intellectual disabilities, the ones who are more capable and independent are often the ones who have the hardest time finding a place of belonging, and who therefore lead lives of greater suffering. I don't mean to say that capability is a bad thing; I just mean that it is complicated, and that makes the ramifications of this treatment hard to predict.

We don't know whether this potential brain treatment will lead to greater quality of life for people with Down Syndrome. We don't know what its risks and side-effects might be. We do know that people with disabilities are undervalued, insufficiently supported, and too seldom consulted or in control of the decisions that affect their lives. Why don't we put more work into supporting the weaker members of society, combating bullying and abuse, and discovering and learning from the experience of people who have disabilities, and get less excited about expensive, unproven treatments that may do more harm than good?