"So many dreams at first seem impossible. And then they seem improbable. And then when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."
~ Christopher Reeve

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Power of Words

Have you heard about the campaign to 'End The "r" Word'?

Personally, I think it might be a little over the top. For the simple reason that it seems to attempt to paint the use of the word as "hate speech".

Don't get me wrong, I do have a big problem with people throwing around the word "retard", be it unintentionally and casually or in a mean-spirited way. Always have, ever since I was a child. Growing up with two severely challenged older sisters, I suppose that's not too surprising.

It's just that I tend to approach most things from a legal point of view. And coming from it that perspective, I find it a little over the top to attempt to label it "hate speech". Although it might well fit the Wikepedia definition, I have a little more trouble rounding it with the legal [Criminal Code] definition.
Public incitement of hatred
319. (1) Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of
(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

Wilful promotion of hatred
(2) Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of
(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction

And although it may well fit within the definition of what has become commonly known as "hate speech" under sec. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, I have a lot of problems (both from a legal and personal point of view) with that section.

That being said, I'm more than happy to point you in the direction of some rather cool opinion out there on the subject. From those who have the most right to object and tell all of us exactly how they think and feel on the subject.

But my own opinion on the campaign aside, it's hard to argue with the premise that the words we choose are an expression of our values and that much hurt and harm can be caused by using hurtful language. And whether or not we can stop the general public from throwing around the word as an insult, there can be no argument that it's high time the Nova Scotia government woke up and changed the centuries old wording of some of our provincial legislation.

For example, over the years, the wording of the Incompetent Persons Act (which is the legislation under which a person would apply for a guardianship order) has been more than enough to make a person's stomach churn. Fortunately, that legislation has been recently amended to remove the references to "lunatics", the "insane", "insane and dangerous persons" and one of my personal favourites, "dangerous idiot".

And although some might still take offence to the new and improved language in the Act which now uses the word "incompetent", it is a huge improvement. And, personal feelings aside, legally accurate. So perhaps we are getting there, slowly but surely.

In a similar, but much more far-reaching vein, United States Senator Barbara Mikulski is attempting to remove the words "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from that country's federal law books and have them replaced with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability”. This with a piece of legislation known as "Rosa's Law" which has an interesting bit of history behind it.
Rosa’s Law replicates a law recently adopted in Maryland. Senator Mikulski first heard about the state law from Rosa’s mother during a roundtable discussion about special education held in Edgewater, Maryland. Due to requirements in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), each student who receives special education services at public schools has an individualized education program (IEP) that describes the student’s disability and the special education and services that child will receive. Rosa has an intellectual disability – Downs Syndrome – and so was designated as a student with “mental retardation” in her IEP, giving way to people at the school referring to Rosa as retarded. Senator Mikulski promised Rosa’s mother that if the bill became law in Maryland, she would take it to the floor of the United States Senate.

“This bill is driven by a passion for social justice and compassion for the human condition,” said Senator Mikulski, a senior member of the HELP Committee. “We’ve done a lot to come out of the dark ages of institutionalization and exclusion when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities. I urge my colleagues to join me to take a step further. The disability community deserves it. Rosa deserves it.”

“Mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” are terms commonly used in federal laws, including the Individual With Disabilities Education Act, the Higher Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
And just in case anyone out there really wonders why it matters, perhaps they should take a moment to listen to Rosa's brother. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.
When Rosa’s Law was being considered by the Maryland General Assembly, Rosa’s 13-year-old brother, Nick, successfully testified on her behalf for a substitution of mentally retarded with intellectual disability. He explained, “Some people say they are just words, and it’s not going to make a difference if we just change the words. Some say we shouldn’t worry about the words, just the way we treat people. But when you think about it, what you call people is how you treat them! If we change the words, maybe it’ll be the start of a new attitude towards people with intellectual disabilities. They deserve it.”
And now, if you don't mind, I would like to leave you with one of my personal favourites. Short. Sweet. And to the point.

Really, what more is there to say?

H/T to Pipecleaner Dreams

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