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September 8, 2021 |

Words Matter

Content warning: This article uses and discusses offensive words related to people with disabilities, offered in the context of our strong opposition to their usage. There is also reference to current events, also offered for context. Black Hills Works takes no position on any issues referenced or inferred in this blog.

Of course, words matter.

Throughout history, words have been used to marginalize, protect, praise, and criticize.

People and protections have been written into or out of laws. Well-crafted speeches have laid the groundwork for emancipation, traveling to the moon, and starting wars. In more recent years, social media has put a finer point on the impact of words. Keyboard bravado leads to insults that would have never been spoken and myths are spread that can affect elections and public health. 

In an instant, words can be seen by millions.

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Words that were once a clinical diagnosis or written into laws such as mental retardation or idiot have become insults that equate having a disability with being incompetent, sick, dependent, unintelligent, or contagious.

“These words are peppered throughout some people’s everyday conversation and have many different shades of contextual meaning. However, they are all terms that have historically been used to label people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And while these and similar words were at one time considered technical or “scientific” labels, they have always also carried a heavy social stigma and power to inflict real harm. Most people with these disabilities have intensely painful experiences being called ‘retarded,’ ‘moron,’ or ‘idiot’ in clearly insulting ways. The fact that people still use such terms without intending to hurt disabled people doesn’t matter. They are harmful in all cases.” (Forbes, February 2021).

In 2009, two youth leaders set out to do something about it by founding the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. They focused on the word “retard(ed)” because it was widely recognized as being a “particularly powerful form of exclusion.” For over 10 years, millions of people pledged to end the use of the “R-word.” Each pledge was a “personal commitment to acknowledge the hurt caused by the R-word and to be respectful in the words and actions taken towards people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Black Hills Works employees and people supported have proudly taken this pledge over the years, as recently as 2021 to “Spread the Word” in support of “focusing on the inclusion for all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Words matter. Words hurt. If you would like to join the movement, take the pledge and make a difference at https://www.spreadtheword.global/. Thank you!

Additional Resource:

Eleven Commandments of Etiquette for Communication with People with Disabilities http://www.blackhillsworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/11-Commandments-People-First-Language.pdf

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