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The Power of Language

By Jessica O'Connor


          In preparation for this sermon, a few months ago I was perusing through the UUA website to get some inspiration and ideas on what I might like to talk about. I came across a sermon from the Reverend Doctor Devorah Greenstein that talked about the importance of how language is used. This intrigued me as much of my work in training people new to the field of providing support to people with developmental disabilities focuses on how language is an incredibly important tool on how we serve and support people.

          Dr. Greenstein began her sermon with an analogy about the power of language. 

          “A while ago my friend told me that his son had come home from school with a new put-down expression. “That is sooo gay.” My friend explained to his son that perhaps he didn’t want to say that—after all, he lived in a family with two daddies—“gay” as a put-down just didn’t seem the way to go. His son agreed. The next day he came home from school and said “That is sooo retarded.” When my friend told me this, he sighed and said he had started enumerating marginalized groups in his head—hmmm “That is sooo… fill in the blank with oppressed group…”[i]

A Tool for Good

         Language. It is a tool for good, and for not-so-good…it is a sharp tool…sharp in ways we aren’t even conscious of.”

          I spent my first 18 years growing up in rural New Hampshire before going off to college in New York City. What a culture shock for this small town girl. I was one of two white students in a public speaking class. For a while, I had a hard time admitting it but I was truly ignorant about some important aspects of language and the effect it could have on others.  The assignment was to deliver a persuasive speech. I figured, sure, I’ve got this, I’ll talk about sunscreen. I thought I did pretty well, took my time and talked about how everyone needs to lather on a high SPF and what can happen if you don’t. Well, after my speech my professor asked me to stay and chat after class to talk about my use of language and knowledge of diversity. Well, I won’t go into specifics but I can tell you when I recall that moment I can still feel the shame and complete embarrassment with my ignorance.

          That was the moment where language awareness became an important part of my life.

          Kathie Snow- parent, advocate, and founder of Disability is Natural writes in an article The Hierarchy of Insults:

          “Listen to talk radio, watch a sitcom, or just pay attention to your own conversations at home or work, and you’ll hear retard, idiot, moron, imbecile, lame, crazy, schizo, spaz, and more. The American public has decided that these- and many others- are great words to use as insults and slurs. They roll off the tongue so easily, while the brain gives little thought to what these words mean, where they came from, or what impact they have.

What these Words have in Common

          What these [specific] words have in common is they were, or are, medical diagnoses. And in our society these particular diagnoses fall under the category of ‘disability’. But we don’t use other medical diagnoses” as slurs or insults do we? I’ve never heard a child on the playground yell ‘you’re such a diabetic- you can’t play with us!’ No, ‘retard’ is the insult of choice.

          I’ve never heard a radio talk show host describe Congress as “a bunch of siatics’. No a bunch of idiots is a favorite descriptor.”

I myself, before beginning my work in social services, used language much more freely without thinking of the repercussions and the impact of my words.

“We need to think about why so many people use this category of words in a derogatory fashion. Could it be that in the hierarchy of insults, these words are at the top of the list; higher than jerk, creep, stupid and even profanity?

          When a child screams ‘retard’ across the playground for all to hear, he has chosen to use a word that will inflict the most emotional damage to another. In his mind, a ‘retard’ is obviously the lowest of the low. And this example (as well as many others) should trouble us- deeply. For the use of these words as insults represents the extreme devaluation of people with disabilities- men, women, boys, girls- who happen to have medical diagnoses.”[ii]

Well, What Else Should I Say?

          When I teach orientation to people just entering the field of human services sometimes someone in the class shyly will ask- “well, what should I say instead?” I LOVE this question and that someone is brave enough to ask it. The answer begins with intention.

          The Arc, a national organization that serves, supports, and advocates for people with developmental disabilities provides the following information about making this important shift in language, thinking of the person first rather than the label.

          “People with disabilities [and any marginalized group] are- first and foremost- people who have individual abilities, interests and needs. They are moms, dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students and teachers. About 54 million Americans—one out of every 5 individuals have a disability. Their contributions enrich our communities and society as they live, work, and share their lives. People with disabilities constitute our nation’s largest minority group, which is simultaneously the most inclusive and the most diverse. Everyone is represented: of all genders, all ages, all religions, all socioeconomic levels and all ethnic backgrounds. The disability community is the only minority group that anyone can join at any time.

          Historically, people with disabilities have been regarded as individuals to be pitied, feared or ignored. They have been portrayed as helpless victims, repulsive adversaries, heroic individuals overcoming tragedy, and charity cases who must depend on others for their wellbeing and care. Media coverage frequently focused on heartwarming features and inspirational stories that reinforced stereotypes, patronized and underestimated individuals' capabilities.

Not a Problem

          Disability is not the “problem.” For example, a person who wears glasses, like myself, doesn’t say, “I have a problem seeing,” they say, “I wear/need glasses.” Similarly, a person who uses a wheelchair doesn’t say, “I have a problem walking,” they say, “I use/need a wheelchair.”

          Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, and affect people’s daily lives and more. How we use them makes a difference. People First Language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Using a diagnosis as a defining characteristic reflects prejudice, and also robs the person of the opportunity to define him/herself.”[iii]

   The Language of Hate

      Right now in our world there is a lot of language filled with hate and anger hurled at people who are seen as different. Angry words are geared toward people of specific religions, ethnicity, and who make what is seen to be different life and love choices. The language of hate starts with powerful negative words and as we have seen recently can end in chaos, violence and even death. This is a big problem.           There are many organization that are working very hard to combat language of hatred. I believe the first step we can do is to have discussions and ask questions of things we do not understand. Being open when we may be ignorant on how a word or a label can make someone feel. I believe if can create a common language this is a great start. There is an acronym for the word THINK. Before we speak it is important to THINK. T-is it true, H- is it helpful, I- is it inspiring, N- is it necessary, K- is it kind.

Talk to Your Children

        According to the National Education Association, individuals under the age 20 commit the majority of hate crimes. We can begin with talking to our children, grandchildren, children in our communities about diversity. Sharing books, magazines, movies, and other media that do not always have the protagonist a white heterosexual healthy male. We can look back in our own heritage, talk about cultural diversity and what it means to all of us. This is where language can be proactive and powerful. We can create a common language where a family or even marriage doesn’t always look the same.


          Language, when intentional can be used to build bridges, to enlighten, to empower. On the other hand when we don’t think about the words we use there can be unintended consequences. Make the choice, THINK, use words, and questions thoughtfully and with intention. Or as my Dad would say “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.




2005, Devorah Greenstein



2006, Kathie Snow


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