Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's in a word? Stigma

The other night I found Ben in bed, his face behind a book that was jiggling about because he was laughing so hard.

The book was The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter.

It's a tiny hardcover book my dad read to me as a child. My dad was a wonderful storyteller and hearing him read was like listening to music. On the floor beside the bed was The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Ben has always loved the antics that Beatrix Potter's animals get up to. He wouldn't let me see what page he was on, but I figured it was something about Benjamin and Peter getting into trouble in Mr. McGregor's vegetable garden.

After he went to sleep I flipped through the book and came to this illustration of old Mr. Bunny (Benjamin's father) lunging at the cat who's been sitting, for five hours, on a basket under which Peter and Benjamin quiver.

Old Mr. Bunny had no opinion whatever of cats. He took a tremendous jump off the top of the wall on to the top of the cat, then cuffed it off the basket, and kicked it into the green-house, scratching off a handful of fur. The cat was too much surprised to scratch back

That was probably the page I thought.

Ben has always loved the absurd, the over-the-top, the darkly humorous.

When I saw him that night, I couldn't imagine anyone more happy or caught up enjoying a moment.

And who am I to question that his way of life is any less valuable because of his IQ, I thought, because he's not thinking what average 18-year-olds do.

Today is the fifth year of Spread the Word to End the Word, the campaign by Special Olympics to get people to stop using the word "retard" because it's a demeaning slur against people with intellectual disabilities.

I'm tired and not a little disheartened with the arguments put forward, often by the brain elite, that when words like retard, imbecile and moron are used, the speaker doesn't have a person with intellectual disability in mind.

Come on.

Everyone knows that these words have a particular zing because they were once descriptors for people with intellectual disabilities. As the most stigmatized, hated and feared group on earth, calling someone a retard, imbecile or moron is the ultimate put-down.

I remember being asked to fill out a survey at a large children's hospital about prenatal testing. The survey was being conducted by students who were training to be genetics counsellors.

One of the questions asked whether, as a parent, I would terminate a pregnancy because the child had mental retardation and would have no quality of life.

The question was problematic because of its simplistic construction, equating low IQ with a wasteland worse than death.

High IQ is not correlated with a good and satisfying life, and neither can low IQ be assumed to suck the richness out of life.

So next time you're looking for a word to heap ridicule on someonestop... and thinkand leave people like my son alone.


Wonderfully written - thank you so much for putting this out there.

I can imagine the moment of laughter with his book. A beautiful image...