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Getting rid of a hurtful word

Ann Trudgeon October 3rd, 2012

The term “politically correct” has fallen from favor, occasionally mocked by those who cite the importance of the First Amendment. I, too, value our Constitutional rights to speak without fear of being persecuted. And yet the adage that “words will never hurt me” is ridiculously erroneous. Words do hurt — they have tremendous power to hurt. For a friend of mine, Misty Cargill, words ultimately killed.

As the director of a small agency, the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council, I know words and language have great significance. We write contracts using specific language to ensure we get what we pay for. We base eligibility for services on very specific words — the right words on applications for services.

There is other language in our work that is of grave concern to us. Chief among those is what we refer to as “the R word.” So offensive is this word that I struggle to type it: “retard” or “retarded.” The R word, as we all know, is popular language to describe a person who makes a mistake or a situation that is ridiculous. While it is used on occasion as a pejorative description for someone who happens to have a disability, more often than not, the user is not directly making reference to a person who has a disability.

So why the concern? Because words have consequences. They do hurt, even when we don’t intend for them to.

Misty Cargill was a friendly, outgoing person. She had a boyfriend she loved, bowled in a league every week, and she also happened to have a cognitive disability. “Cognitive disability” is the new language, the appropriate language, for a person who might previously have been called “mentally retarded.”

Misty also had a bad kidney. When she needed a transplant, she was denied because the hospital staff determined that she could not possibly provide self-care because of her disability. They said she needed a legal guardian so that the hospital could ensure “someone” (someone with a higher IQ than Misty) could take responsibility for her care.

Wisely, a judge determined that she did not qualify as “incompetent” (another fairly ugly word in our field), and therefore would not appoint a guardian for her.

Where did that leave Misty? Without a kidney. For any readers who find this decision appropriate, let me tell you that several scientific studies have proved that people with disabilities are the best candidates for surgery in terms of post-surgery care. This is because they are already likely to have support networks in place, including their families, health care professionals and service providers.

Misty’s condition improved over the next few years, but her kidney began to fail again earlier this year. She died the day before she was scheduled for another kidney transplant consultation.

Misty may never have been called “retarded” to her face. It’s likely the school bully who uses the word on the playground doesn’t have someone like Misty in mind. But the R word, and the misconceptions about the humanity and abilities of people with disabilities, played a role in the decision to deny Misty the kidney she sought and deserved.

I urge Oklahoma Gazette readers to pledge to eliminate that word from their vocabularies, and those of their friends, families, and even acquaintances.

We know you don’t mean it, but it is mean.

Trudgeon is executive director of the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council.

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Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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