Do you know Dave Hingsberger?
He’s a strong advocate and friend to a lot of us that find our lives touched by the world of disability. He’s compassionate, thoughtful and quickly analytical. He gets the struggles that sometimes seem inherent in the lives of those that are marginalized by their communities. I had the good fortune of hearing him speak many moons ago as a young social work intern learning my way in the field of disability advocacy. His words touched my heart and stayed with me even though I only saw him a few times and so very long ago.
Shortly after the Quail was born and I found myself repeatedly googling disability issues and reacquainting myself with our modern-day heroes and advocates. I found out that Dave makes himself a willing and daily member and advocate of our community via his blog. What good fortune! What wisdom. I feel so blessed to live in a world where technology has enabled me to have access to wisdom and support at all hours of the day. Particularly on sleepless nights when my mind is in a race with my heart to beat out worry.
A couple of months ago Dave took fingers to the keyboard to convey the unconventional wisdom found in an ordinary everyday situation- a mom and her teenage son dickering about his right to be independent on a daily basis. His right to the dignity of risk. Years ago, as a young whippersnapper of a social worker living in a liberal community, I would have read this story, and been rallying around that young teenager. Of course he should get to go get his food in the mall without an escort. It’s the mall, he’s a teenager, teenagers hang at the mall all of the time without befalling dire consequences. Right? Having a disability shouldn’t mean you have to be escorted everywhere.
But sadly, in our world, in this day, those everyday situations can befall horrible outcomes. Not everyone respects people’s dignity of risk or frankly- human life. Some people spend their time making others who have worked so hard to be a part of the community, to be accepted, to at least be allowed to live in peace, live a nightmare- at best. As a mother I hear about these stories and I want to take both of my children in my arms and never let anyone talk to them without first going through a battery of testing of my own. The fear eats at me. The worry of what I can do to prevent any harm befalling anyone tugs at my soul. Why anyone would insist that their right to call someone a ret@rd is more of a priority than the person on the receiving end’s dignity is beyond me. Just because we have the right to say what we want doesn’t mean we have to. I will never understand people defending their right to be mean. It’s one thing for someone to make a mistake, realize it, apologize and learn from it. We’re all human. It’s a diagnosable personality disorder to defend the right to hurt others.
The critics and trolls insist that as parents and advocates asking you to please remove this slang from your vocabulary is petty, politically correct and an overstatement of the issue at hand. I would say the extinction of Ernie Hernandez Jr’s life is a sad statement to the seriousness of the issue.
Our world is changing though. It’s this fact that restores my faith. The world understands now that people who clinically have the diagnosis of mental retardation can learn. They may learn differently, but they do learn. The term retardation when used appropriately isn’t the issue. The issue is that a wide sect of people use it to degrade others and then defend their right to be ignorant about it. The issue is so significant that even the medical community has decided to step in and revise their language. The correct term in the DSM-V will be intellectual disability.
We can all learn, if we are willing. As a friend, a community member, as a co-worker, as a family member, as a fellow human being I am telling you it gives me pause when you say ret@rd in reference to something you did that you think was stupid. I know you may not have thought about it before. I know you may not have had any reason to question it. Everyone says it right?
Well give me a few minutes of your time and open your hearts and mind and take the opportunity to learn about the history of people diagnosed with mental retardation. Read this. Know the struggles that have been faced and won, and those that still exist. If you still disagree about the significance of the R word, that’s fine. Just as a friend- please don’t use it around me or my family. That’s at least a start.
And as to that teenager and his mother; well, let me commend her and her brave heart. She listened to her son. As a social worker and disability advocate I had no doubts about his rights. As a momma to a sweet Quail making her world in her community, I stand guard to the harm that may befall her one day. And hopefully, one day, I’ll be as brave as that Momma to know when it’s time to let her fly. With the wisdom of folks like Dave, I’m sure I’ll stay the course.
Our language frames how we think about others. Help eliminate the R-word from everyday speech. Won’t you please join me in taking the pledge to end the R word?