It was the middle of my 6 year old son's baseball game. His team was at bat, which meant most of the kids were sitting on the bench. Well, I use the term "sitting" loosely. It was getting late and the kids were getting antsy. Bats were banging, kids were yelling, and hands were touching. That's when I heard it.
"I've asked you to all sit on the bench! What are you, deaf?"
Sitting not too far from the dugout, my head whipped around so hard I'm surprised I didn't strain a muscle. You see my son, Connor, is deaf. My same 6 year old son who was sitting on that bench amidst his bat-banging, loud-yelling, hand-touching teammates.
We locked eyes. His mouth dropped. I saw the instant regret as he quickly tried to cover his mistake. "Uhhh, you guys need to listen. Just sit and cheer on your team." But it was too late. I wasn't angry; I know he didn't have malicious intent. I was sad. Sad for my child who was born with a disability into a world that still assigns negative connotation to those who are different.
"What are you, deaf?"
"That's so retarded."
"Ugh. She's so bipolar."
To the speaker, the intent behind using these words may not be to cause hurt, but the impact is harmful. The truth is, most people don't consider intent vs. impact before they speak, and even if they do, intentions don't always align with the impact created. When you choose to use disability terms to describe a negative situation or behavior, you choose to perpetuate negative feelings and stereotypes about disabilities (and essentially say that you, as an individual, believe these stereotypes to be true). You also choose to assign meaning to a disability that is inaccurate. When Connor's coach asked, "What are you, deaf?" he wasn't implying that the kids didn't hear him; he was implying that they weren't paying attention. Deafness is not defined as an issue with attention.
At the end of the day, words are just letters written together on paper. It's the meanings that we attach to them that bring them to life. This isn't about being "politically correct" or "overly-sensitive", like many are quick to remark. It's about changing the narrative when it comes to disabilities so that the power behind these words belongs to those who live their true meaning, not with those who choose to attach their personal bias to them.
The next time you intend to use disability language to describe anything other than an actual disability, think about the impact those words have on all the little boys and girls sitting on the bleachers around the world.