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Regular Lives for Families with Children with Disabilities: Interview with Kathie Snow

Minority Groups and Owning the Language

Produced in 2013 by Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities

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Kathie Snow: And so people with disabilities, in any social movement, when a minority group rises up and starts to take power, they say we're going to own the language. And that's what people of color did. They said we're… we don't want to be called the "N" word anymore. We don't want to be called Negro anymore. We want to be called black. And we don't want to be called colored anymore. We want to be called black. And they went so far as to deconstruct what it meant to be black by saying black is beautiful.

And women, in the women's movement, took the power back and said, "Don't call me sweetie, honey," you know. "I'm your secretary, not your waitress. I'm not going to get your coffee, too. You get your own coffee. I'll type your letters, but I'm not going to get your coffee." So women said, you know, "Call me Kathie or call me Miss Snow, but don't call me honey, sweetie, baby anymore."

And the same is true, I mean you can look at any so-called minority group and see the same things have happened. And so we have to be respectful of people first language because they're the ones who say we don't want to be called this anymore. We want to be called this way. And so we have to look at them as people first. They are people first. I mean, they're not some, again, they're not from another planet. They're not from some subspecies of humanity. And so people first language is really, far from being PC, people first language is about having good manners. People first language is about respect. People first language is more about the golden rule than anything else. Treating other people the way you want to be treated.

And again, thinking about a disability is just a medical diagnosis, and everybody's got a medical diagnosis. I don't want to be known as the hysterectomy lady or the wart lady or the big butt man or whatever your medical diagnosis is. None of us would want to be known by that. And so it just becomes that simple act of respect, of making sure the person is a person first.

And I don't even like the term disabled. If you look at… if we talk about disabled people, if you look at the federal definition of disabled in the IRS code, the federal definition is that you are unable to work. It's like, because that's the whole thing about SSI and SSDI and that you're unable to work. And so it's like I would hope that we want people with disabilities to work.

When my son was about 13 years old, a man came up to him, you know, minding his own business, we're in the mall or something. And this older man. I say older man, I've got to be careful talking about older people because I'm getting to be one, but this man came up to my son and he said, "You know, some men would call you a son," even though it's not your real son but they call everybody a son. Man came up to him and said, "Oh, son, I see that you're disabled," looking at him in his wheelchair. And Benjamin got that pointer finger up and he said, "Sir, excuse me. Sir, I have a disability but I am not disabled."

And you see just the difference in self-perception. And so I think we have to be respectful of people. Having a disability is not a big deal. Let's not make it a big deal. It shouldn't be a big deal. But if you say somebody's disabled, that means that, you know, I mean, the legal definition is that they're unable to work. And so when people say they're disabled, it's like really? Like you can never have a job?

And one last thing about people first language is the thing about stuff. Let's go beyond people first language, but it's part of it, of how we use language in general, that whenever you'll hear on a radio talk show or you'll, or some kind of comedian, even in your own homes, you'll look at somebody and say, oh, that guy is such a moron. Isn't she an idiot? That is just insane. I mean we hear these words all the time. And, of course, the one we're familiar with. You are such a retard. Well, any time we use those terms, I mean every single thing I just said, plus many more, are medical diagnoses of people with developmental disabilities or with mental health conditions. So what does that say about our society? That we have taken the medical diagnoses of certain groups of people and turned them into pejorative, horrifying insults.

If your neighbor borrows your lawnmower and doesn't bring it back, and under your breath you mutter, "That guy's an idiot," would you say instead, "That guy's such a diabetic?" And people can laugh about that. It's like why don't we call him a diabetic? Because we don't devalue people with diabetes. We haven't marginalized them. But people with other conditions that, again, pretty much developmental disabilities and mental health conditions, we have turned their diagnoses into insults. And so we have to watch our own language. We have to be aware of the power of language.

I mean, again, language creates the reality of the world we live in. We talk about all these people being disabled or this or that or the other, that's how we're going to see them, and that's how we're going to treat them. And so the first way that you devalue somebody is through the words that you use about them. So we don't want people to be devalued, we have to first watch our language. But those of us within the disability community, it has to start with us. We can't expect people in bigger society to make changes if we don't make the changes ourselves. So we have a huge responsibility to use language that is always accurate and respectful.

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The GCDD is funded under the provisions of P.L. 106-402. The federal law also provides funding to the Minnesota Disability Law Center, the state Protection and Advocacy System, and to the Institute on Community Integration, the state University Center for Excellence. The Minnesota network of programs works to increase the IPSII of people with developmental disabilities and families into community life.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 2301MNSCDD-02, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.

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