Over the last half century, our society has become very sensitive to the power of words and we refrain from using slurs against any group, regardless of sex, age, color or other defining characteristics.
This has not always been the case when referring to the largest minority among us: people with disabilities. There have been a number of recent examples of public insensitivity towards nearly 20 percent of the population:
- In his article in The Atlantic, "The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here," Jeffrey Goldberg quoted an unnamed source in the Obama administration referring to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as "Aspergery," insulting millions of people around the world with Asperger Syndrome.
- New Hampshire Sen. Rand Paul crossed the line when he accused people on disability assistance of "gaming the system" and opined "over half the people on disabilities are anxious or have back pain -- join the club."
As long as public officials use such derogatory language, how can we expect children to cease calling each other "retarded" on the school yard, or for a typically-developing child to see a child with a disability as a person deserving of full social equality and even friendship? If the public language is coarse, how can we expect sentiment to be humane?
The test for how we ought to use language should be simple: if you had a child with a particular disability, how would you feel if your child heard a public figure use their disability as an insult?
Judging from recent incidents, public figures clearly don't ask themselves this question- a sure sign we haven't made as much progress as we think.
Just two weeks ago, President Obama signed into law The ABLE Act, a bill permitting people with disabilities to open tax-free savings accounts for life expenses. Prior to the legislation, people with disabilities couldn't set aside money for such purposes. Funds saved outside a trust account disqualified those with disabilities from Medicaid benefits and Social Security.
To be sure, The ABLE Act represents progress in the march toward full inclusion of people with disabilities. But there's more to progress than passing laws.
One of the great accomplishments of the civil rights movement was not only that it reformed our laws and policy, but that it transformed the way we use language. It became socially unacceptable for people -- especially people with power -- to make prejudiced or insensitive remarks toward people of color. Similarly, it has become increasingly unacceptable to make derogatory remarks about any minority. But such sensitivity and restraint clearly has not been extended to people with disabilities.
The old nursery rhyme states that "names will never hurt me." As the civil rights movement has taught us, words hurt and they reinforce old prejudices. The time has come for our public officials to serve as shining examples of acceptance and tolerance. The time to end all slurs, against all groups, is now.