Words! Words! Words!


Does one give up on telling the story? Never! There is another critical ability that words have; they explain, they teach and eventually they make progress.
 “Blind. Deaf. Dumb. Insane. Crazy.Handicapped. Daft. Psychotic. Special needs.”1
“These words are flung around so often, and in such ill-advised and misappropriated ways, it’s easy to forget what they were actually intended to depict: people with ranges of physical, intellectual, cognitive, mental and other disabilities.”1
The way we use such words is important because it reinforces the bias, discrimination and outright demeaning behaviors and situations routinely encountered by people with disabilities.
1. That’s just retarded.The Black Eyed Peas’ hit song, otherwise known as “Let’s Get It Started” was originally recorded and released as “Let’s Get Retarded.”
2. Why do you have to be so blind? Carrie Underwood may be considered one of America’s sweethearts, but her 2012 Billboard No. 1 song “Good Girl” is complicated by the comparison Underwood makes between not being able to physically see and a woman’s inability to recognize that her man is a lying, no-good excuse for a lover.
3. They’re off their meds today. Far too often, instead of taking the more compassionate approach to someone who’s emotionally struggling or seems angered beyond belief, many people quip that such a person is “off their meds,” often in a flippant tone.
4. My love for you is bipolar. Katy Perry’s 2008 hit “Hot N Cold,” there’s a comparison between a mental illness filled with bouts of depression, mood swings and manic behavior and the instance of a man’s on-again, off-again commitment to his romantic partner.
5. The economy has absolutely crippled my finances. Crippled has been used, often negatively, to describe people with a range of physical disabilities related to movement for many years.
6. That joke was so lame. By definition, lame refers to a part of the body that is restricted in terms of physical ability. However, the term is currently used negatively to signal that a person is square, inferior, nerdy, nasty or worthy of contemptand shame.
7. Everybody, please stand. Whether in a courtroom, house of worship or before the Star-Spangled Banner; what of those who are unable to stand.1
8. Handicapping a race. “Handicap” comes from an old lottery game called hand-in-cap, in which bets were placed in hats.2
“What’s wrong with ‘retard’? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are someone that is not your kind. I want you to know that it hurts to be left out here, alone.”
Joseph Franklin Stephens, Special Olympics Virginia athlete and Global Messenger3
“Words matter. People don’t need to scoff at others to make a point. Everyone has a gift and the world would be better off if we recognized it.”
Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics3
In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation requiring the federal government to replace the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in many areas of government. The measure known as Rosa’s Law was approved unanimously by Congress before receiving the go-ahead from the president with little fanfare.4 In 2013 the Federal Register changed the term “Mental Retardation” to “Intellectual Disability” in all Social Security Regulations.5


“People with disabilities are first and foremost People. They are people who have individual abilities interests and needs. For the most part, they are ordinary individuals seeking to live ordinary lives.”6
“…whenever possible it’s preferable to mention the person first. That is, it’s more appropriate to say ‘person with cerebral palsy’ or ‘person with autism’ or just a general ‘person with disabilities.’ The emphasis should be on the person, not the particular disability.”7
The U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, provides direction related to communicating. The Americans with Disabilities Act, other laws and the efforts of many disability organizations have made strides in improving accessibility in buildings, increasing access to education, opening employment opportunities and developing realistic portrayals of persons with disabilities in television programming and motion pictures.8
“… progress is still needed in communication and interaction with people with disabilities. Individuals are sometimes concerned that they will say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all—thus further segregating people with disabilities. (Chart 1 lists) some suggestions on how to relate to and communicate with and about people with disabilities.”8

• A handicap is an inability to accomplish something one might want to do, that most others are able to accomplish. For example, reading, walking, catching a ball, communicating or able to secure4 employment.

• A disability is an inability to execute some class of movements, or pick up sensory information of some sort, or perform some cognitive function that typical unimpaired humans are able to execute or pick up or perform. A disability may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, and developmental or some combination of these.
• A disability may be the cause of a handicap. For example, if a person has a disability that prevents them from being able to move their legs, it may result in a handicap in driving.9
However, a person with a disability is not necessarily handicapped. One of our colleagues, Dr. Mark Swerdloff, has coped with the challenges of having had a bilateral, above the knee amputation and has ambulated using a wheelchair since his first days of dental school training. He is a Board Certified Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, who has been honored repeatedly for his teaching prowess, patient care, and an array of accomplishments. There have been times when we have forgotten that he is a person with a disability.
Words can express the love and devotion between individuals; between parents and children; even adherence to a cause which enhances the lives of others. But words also can inflame hatred, sorrow, anguish, untold destitution and misery. Whether intentionality or unintended, when it comes to referring to individuals with disabilities, words can become the proverbial salt that is rubbed into a wound.
In past periods, individuals with disabilities “did not exist” (they were secreted in institutions, lived in back rooms of homes, were not mainstreamed in our schools or the massive numbers of aged with increasing proportions with disabilities did not live into their 80s, 90s and beyond). We paid limited attention to their concerns. That was then; this is now:
• In 2013, 1 in 5 adults (> 18 years), 53 million people in the United States, had a disability, with state-level estimates ranging from 16.4% in Minnesota to 31.5% in Alabama.
• The most common functional disability type was mobility disability – defined as serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs – reported by 1 in 8 adults. Although any person can have a disability at any point in life, disability was more commonly reported by:
• Black Non-Hispanic and Hispanic adults: 29.0% of black non-Hispanic adults and 25.9% of Hispanic adults compared to 20.6% of white non-Hispanic adults.
• Women aged 18 years or older: 24.4% of women, compared to 19.8% of men
• Older adults: Over a third of people 65 years or older reported a disability.10
Nevertheless, children continue to taunt their contemporaries with disabilities; adults may do the same, (intentionally or unintentionally) but with a more subtle command of the language.
Does one give up on telling the story? Never! There is another critical ability that words have; they explain, they teach and eventually they make progress. In past decades, who would have thought that individuals with disabilities would be educated in community schools, be employed in a wide range of occupations, be seen in movies, shop in our stores and carry out lives similar to the general residents in our towns and cities?
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
– Colossians:3:8 •
H. Barry Waldman, DDS, MPH, PhD – Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of General Dentistry at Stony Brook University, NY; E-mail: h.waldman@stonybrook.edu
Steven P. Perlman, DDS, MScD, DHL (Hon) is Global Clinical Director, Special Olympics, Special Smiles and Clinical Professor of Pediatric Dentistry, The Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine, Private pediatric dentistry practice – Lynn MA.
Rick Rader, MD is Director, Morton J. Kent Habilitation Center Orange Grove, Chattanooga TN, and Editor in Chief of EP Magazine.
Misha Garey, DDS is Director of Dental Services at the Orange Grove Center.

1. Clifton D. 7 Things People With Disabilities Are Tired of Hearing. Web site: http://mic.com/articles/94988/7-things-people-with-disabilities-are-tired-of-hearing Accessed July 29, 2015.
2. Somerset Racing. Race handicapping. Web site: http://www.somersetracing.com/content/race-handicapping Accessed August 3, 2015.
3. R–word: spread the word to end the word. Advocates explain why the R-word is so hurtful when used in jokes or as part of every-day speech. Web site: http://www.r-word.org/r-word-effects-of-the-word.aspx Accessed July 30, 2015.
4. Diament M. Obama Signs Bill Replacing ‘Mental Retardation’ With ‘Intellectual Disability.’ Web site:
5. Manning R. R–word: spread the word to end the word. Federal Register Changes Term “Mental Retardation” to “Intellectual Disability” in all Social Security Regulations!! Web site: http://www.r-word.org/Stories/Stories/Federal_Register_Changes_Mental_Retardation_to_Intellectual_Disability.aspx Accessed July 30, 2015.
6. Center for Persons with Disabilities. People first language. Website: http://www.cpdusu.org/about/committee/awareness/ Accessed July 30, 2015.
8. U.S. Department of Labor. Office of Disability Employment Policy. Communicating With and About People with Disabilities. Website: http://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/comucate.htm Accessed July 30, 2015.
9. Diffen – English Language, Grammar, Words. Handicapped vs. Disabled. Web site: diffen.com Accessed July 31, 2015.
10. Courtney-Long EA, Carroll DD, Zhang QC, et al. Prevalence of disability and disability type among adults — United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, July 31, 2015; 64(29):777-783/.

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