I was a Special Education teacher back in the day. Before kids. Before Adelaide’s first MRI. So I took class after class focused on disability law, people first language, and being politically correct at all times. I was once involved in a graded debate about the appropriate use of disabled vs. differently abled.
I left college scared to death that I would use the wrong word and offend someone. Because I had been conditioned that only certain terms were acceptable. And certain terms were deplorable.
Last Summer, we were at Silver Dollar City. Adelaide was in her wheelchair, enjoying life. The attendant asked if we had her special riding pass booklet, which shows the rides and attractions she can legally ride. It’s catered to her specific abilities. Graham answered, “We’ve got her book! She’s disabled!”
“You should use other words for her. Maybe that’s offensive.” A stranger in line corrected Graham. I was about to step in when Graham looked this man in the eyes, and stated in true Graham-fashion, “I don’t know what ‘offendisive’ means, but you see da wheelchair, right? Cuz she’s in one!”
I have no idea if this man had a disability, cared for someone with a disability, or just liked butting into random conversations while in line at a children’s play area, but I was taken back to my college days. This stranger never once smiled at Adelaide. Or greeted her. Or asked if she was enjoying herself. His only interaction with us was correcting a child.
Our family uses many terms for all our kids. Disabled, disability, non-disabled, neurodisabled, nonverbal, wheelchair-user, normal, atypical, neuro-typical, verbal, special needs, and many others. I cater our words to the occasion. Forms, discussions with doctors, interactions with 90-year-old women at the grocery store. Because I prefer that people interact with us rather than giving off a vibe that we’re going to judge you for using the “wrong” word.
“Is she retarded?” An elderly man with oxygen and a cane asked me, while we were visiting Bob in a transitional care unit. Bob was just a few weeks from going home on hospice. Everyone at the facility loved when Adelaide visited. She was always clapping and laughing. I didn’t say, “You aren’t supposed to use the r-word anymore.” I knew his heart and he genuinely wanted to know about Adelaide. “She has lots of brain issues and can’t speak or walk, but we aren’t sure what she’s thinking. She loves counting!” Then he stooped down to count with her. I later found out no one visited him. Seeing Adelaide brought him joy.
Imagine if I had said, “We no longer use that word. If you were on the internet, you would know this. And some people don’t want you using Special Needs or disabled, either.”
Talk about a conversation killer. With a lonely veteran of a foreign war, who just wanted to chat about Adelaide.
I’m not saying you should use the word retarded. I’m saying that Dave and I focus more on engaging in conversations with people who want to know about Adelaide, and we use a variety of language to do it.
When a small child comes up and asks, “What’s wrong with her?” I never say, “The word ‘wrong’ is a bit harsh.” I squat down next to Adelaide’s wheelchair and answer, “When she was growing in my belly, her brain formed a different way than yours did.” And I continue from there.
If I knew what Adelaide wanted me to say, I would say it. But I don’t. Dave and I are her voices. We speak for her. She is nonverbal. I was once told in a forum that the term ‘nonverbal’ is offensive. It was news to me. I still use it for my own child. And I’m sure I use lots of other words that would make college professors cringe. But this is my world. A Special Needs Mom raising a kid with disabilities. And I’ll use the words I want to use to teach people about our family.
I long for the day when people see Adelaide and greet her at Silver Dollar City, instead of making assumptions about which buzz words she would choose if she could talk, sign, or use a communication device. She does understand “Hello!” and will often return the greeting. So let’s start there. Maybe focusing on the person is far more important than focusing on people first language. But that’s just my two cents.