Remember the sing-song-y saying from childhood, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” I never understood that as a child, because I was always a sensitive soul, and today, as an adult in my thirties, I certainly know that words, indeed, can hurt – at times more than physical wounds.
I was reading the article in the Goshen News that our dear friend wrote about our family for Craniofacial Acceptance Month, and I was struck as I read words like “disability” or “disorder” or “malformation.” I thought, “These are such negative words.”
Mind you, I am a pessimist by nature. But I do believe words are very powerful. They can hurt. They can heal. They inspire. They discourage. They inflict deep pain. They can draw upon great love. Words have the power to change – to change us, to change our perspective, to change the world. And many times words can be used to manipulate the reader, perhaps in subtle ways, but often in a very overt manner.
Words speak to our subconscious. They can pierce the soul. They can illuminate the conscience. Words can either destroy or create. That is why it is very important for all of us to choose our words very carefully.
I admit I have not always been conscientious about this. In fact, I struggle with it daily. Often I speak out of emotion or without thinking carefully. I do not listen as often as I speak. Yet I am learning that God is asking me to practice the virtue of self-control so that I may learn by listening rather than being so loquacious.
Since Sarah’s birth, I have heard alternate words to “disability” and “disorder.” I have heard the word “difference” or “different-ability.” It strikes a chord in me as a mother, as I don’t think it would have had quite the same impact without my personal experience with having a child who is different.
When I look at Sarah, I see a person. I see a child with deep love in her eyes. Her eyes pierce the soul with just one glance. Sarah has never spoken one word, and yet she has drastically and dramatically changed many lives.
I do not see her as one who is “disabled” or one who has a “disorder.” I see that she is unique, and that God made her exactly as she is with great love. I have come not only to tolerate and appreciate, but to actually love her differences. Without them, she would not be Sarah but would instead be someone entirely different. I would never change a thing about who she is.
And so I have come to really love reading and hearing about people with “physical differences” or “cognitive differences” rather than “disability” or “disorder.” I prefer to say I have a child with special needs rather than saying a special needs child. I feel the rearrangement of these words speaks an entirely different message.
To say “a child with special needs” recognizes the personhood first and foremost, while saying “a special needs child” implies that the difference is more paramount than the person. I make a point to say these things – boldly and proudly, without shame or embarrassment.
I take Sarah with me wherever I would normally go, and I do not hide her. I am not ashamed of her. Yes, I have seen some stares and whispers or murmurings. But I hold my head up proudly and kiss her forehead gently. I look at her and speak to her with great love.
I feel that Sarah is a great witness to the times in which we live – surrounded by the culture of death, she is a beacon of hope and light. She is a living example of the pro-life story, because her story is a life of beauty, goodness and a love that penetrates through the most hardened heart.
People like Sarah are necessary for our society. They are not disposable; they are valuable. In fact, sometimes I feel that people with differences are more special than the average person, because they have such unique struggles and have to overcome great adversities in their lives. In turn, they often have very strong characters and are such positive people to be around.
People who are different, children with special needs – they are the people who teach the rest of us about what truly matters. They are the ones who color our otherwise black-and-white existence with their vibrant personalities. They turn our dark world into one of greatness, beauty, and love.
I recall the words of Christ about “let the little ones come to me,” and I consider how Christ Himself called people who were different in society to be people of greatness. He didn’t ask the average or intelligent or wealthy to be His disciples. He sought out those who were on the fringe of society, those who were ostracized and ignored or even abhorred in some way. These were the men and women who became the greatest saints, and I believe this remains true for today.
So consider the words you use when you speak. Consider what may seem insignificant when you refer to other people who are different. Don’t use the word “retarded” in jest. Don’t talk about “those special people.” The truth is, they are special. And aren’t we all?
Copyright 2014 Jeannie Ewing
About the Author
Jeannie Ewing believes the world ignores and rejects the value of the Cross. She writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief. As a disability advocate, Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters and is the author of From Grief to Grace , A Sea Without A Shore , and Waiting with Purpose. Jeannie is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic magazines. She, her husband, and three daughters live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website lovealonecreates.com.