Friday, June 11, 2010

The Power of Words

As I think I've mentioned before (and you may have noticed!), I love to play with words. There are so many of them, and they're flexible and resilient at the same time, and the possibilities for interesting combinations are practically endless!

They also wield incredible power.

In 1987, Mayer Shevin wrote the following poem, called "The Language of Us and Them," reflecting on how people without disabilities speak about themselves and about people with disabilities.

We like things.
      They fixate on objects.
We try to make friends.
      They display attention-seeking behaviors.
We take a break.
      They display off-task behavior.
We stand up for ourselves.
      They are non-compliant.
We have hobbies.
      They self-stim.
We choose our friends wisely.
      They display poor peer socialization.
We persevere.
      They perseverate.
We love people.
      They have dependencies on people.
We go for walks.
      They run away.
We insist.
      They tantrum.
We change our minds.
      They are disoriented and have short attention spans.
We are talented.
      They have splinter skills.
We are human.
      They are.......?

You can read about the heartbreaking inspiration for this poem on the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee's web site.

While the poem wasn't originally about autism, it fits strikingly well with how "we" define "them" when it comes to the autism spectrum. I first heard these words in the autism context back in March, at the start of Paula Kluth's workshop at the Autism Society of Wisconsin (ASW) conference. When I walked in a little late, there was a video playing on the big screen, in which the words of the poem were being presented in the context of autism, with music and images and additional text. At the time I didn't even catch the name of the DVD, but I later learned that it was called "The Power of Words: How We Talk About People With Autism Spectrum Disorders Matters!" The creator is Judy Endow, MSW, autism consultant and self-advocate.

It was just announced on the ASW online mailing list that the video has been selected to receive the 2010 Autism Society Media Excellence award, to be presented at the July national conference of the Autism Society of America in Dallas. Congratulations to Judy! (Though there'd be no reason for her to remember me, I've heard her speak and met her briefly. Her words have taught me much -- and made me think.)

The DVD is sold online at the Autism Aspergers Publishing Company.

Here's one more text-excerpt from "The Power of Words" taken from the publishing company web site above:
One time I started making a turkey sandwich.
Then I remembered
I had a banana that needed to be used up.

So I decided to make
a peanut butter and banana sandwich

The group home worker
looked at the new person
she was training and said,

“Judy must have forgotten
that she wanted a turkey sandwich.
They have short attention spans, you know.”

Do you recognize this kind of language, in your own speech (guilty here, probably more often than I know) or being used by others to describe your child or being used to describe you?

I love words. We're all responsible for being aware of their power, and using them in ways that em-power.


jess said...

we have a neuropsych that i love, precisely because he was the first one i heard replace the 'they do xyz ..' with 'our kids sometimes .. ' or 'i've often seen that our kids'. it's amazing what a difference that word choice makes. great post!

pixiemama said...

YES! Spot on!

JoyMama said...

jess - your comment reminds me that there are two parts (or more) to the message. One is to get free of the us/them language; the other is the content of what is thought/said about "them" (even when framed as "our kids" or the like). Am guessing that your neuropsych does pretty well on both counts? :-)

rm said...

my goodness, the sandwhich story really got me.


One Mom said...

Beautiful if only the entire world would read it. I don't know anyone who couldn't benefit from such a lesson. ;)

Elizabeth Channel said...

This reminds me of the "child-first" language concept that we had drilled into us when I worked in a university lab for special needs children. We were always to mention the child with the phrase, "a child with Down Syndrome," or whatever instead of a "Down Syndrome" child. I hear so many people use the term "autistic child" instead of "child with autism," and I think that is something that needs to be addressed.

Great post!

JoyMama said...

Elizabeth -- The person-first language was emphasized in the LEND program last year too, and I think it's an important step. Interestingly, though, there's a counter-opinion in autism self-advocacy circles in favor of the descriptor "autistic". I blogged about it last fall. There's a similar vibe with Deaf culture (i.e., you wouldn't say "a person with deafness"...) As I said in the post I just linked, I sure hope that one day Joy will be able to tell me her preference in that regard!

Quiet One said...

Love your blog. I have lots of reading to catch up on :-)

JoyMama said...

Hi Quiet One -- thanks so much for dropping by / reading through (that's quite a compliment!) I need to read more of your blog as well!