Sunday, January 31, 2010

We are not alone -- Rahm Emanuel and the r-word

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that last August, in a meeting with White House aides and liberal members of congress, President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel uttered the words "Fucking retarded." Evidently, Emanuel was 'scolding' the liberals for planning attack ads against the efforts of more conservative democrats to block health care reform. Since the comment surfaced publicly, many individuals and groups have spoken out, holding Emanuel accountable for using the word retard as a slur and for using a word that people with intellectual disabilities have been lobbying to eliminate from our vernacular.

Within 24 hours of the Wall Street Journal article, Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics dispatched a letter to the President's Chief of Staff. The letter was circulated around disability list-serves. I was surprised by the letter and impressed. Shriver's letter lacked anger and vindictiveness, as it probably should. I've learned in my efforts to impact use of the word midget, and I imagine many others who are trying to shape language might agree, that no one wants to be told what words they can and can not use. No where in Shriver's letter did he demand that Emanuel stop using the r-word. He didn't scold Emanuel. He didn't demand an apology. In fact, Shriver assumed Emanuel might not have even used the word. Reports might have misrepresented what the Chief of Staff actually said. Rather than tell Emanuel what to say, Shriver shared information about the stigma connected to the r-word and invited Emanuel to join in the efforts to end use of the word.

Who knows how Emanuel will respond, but I think Shriver took the correct approach. In a campaign to change language, you need to create bridges. Shriver created a bridge by sharing how hurtful the r-word can be. He invited Emanuel to cross that bridge and join thousands of others who have pledged not to use the word.

The approach reminds me of my wife Katie, who is a strong advocate against the r-word. Not always, but most times, if we are out in public and somebody uses the r-word, she will say something. She won't accuse the person who used the word of prejudice or of ignorance. She won't tell them not use the word. She will simply say something like "I really don't like that word." In most cases, Katie's reaction has a strong affect, causing an emotion reaction that causes people to question use of the word.

Though I am sad about the news of Emanuel's use of the r-word, the incident has given me some new enthusiasm. First of all, it's given me ideas for how to improve my approach to raising awareness around and ending use of the m-word. But perhaps more important, I feel more empowered now, knowing that people of short stature are not alone. Language is a struggle that affects so many of us. Hopefully, as we move forward, we can find ways to support each other, and unite in our common efforts around language.

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