For over thirty years, the month of March has been recognized as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Organizations, families, and people with development disabilities use this month to educate our communities about developmental disabilities, to advocate for inclusion and access to services, and to share stories about the struggles and successes of persons with developmental disabilities.
The term “developmental disabilities” refers to a group of conditions that cause an impairment or delay in the areas of learning, communication, behavior, or mobility. These disabilities are present at birth or are diagnosed in early childhood, usually lasting for the person’s entire life. Developmental disabilities include: Down Syndrome, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and more. Nearly 1 in 6 children in the United States have been diagnosed with one or more developmental disability.
One area of advocacy during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month is the campaign to stop using the “R-word”. The R-word is the word “retard(ed)”. It has been used in the past to diagnose or describe people with Down Syndrome or other intellectual disabilities. In more recent years it has become a derogatory term used insult or question the intelligence of others.
Continued use of the R-word is hurtful and promotes negative stereotypes about people with developmental disabilities. Words can be powerful. The words we choose can shape our attitudes and direct our actions toward others. The Letter of James compares the tongue to a fire and asks us to “consider how even a small fire can set a huge forest ablaze.” (James 3:5-6)
Love impels us to choose words that celebrate each person’s human dignity, a dignity rooted in our creation in the image and likeness of God. A good way to celebrate this truth is to utilize “person-first” language. A person with a disability is, above all else, a person made in God’s image. Person-first language also embraces the truth about a disability far better than euphemisms such as “special needs.”
Rather than calling someone “autistic”, try to refer to them as a “person with Autism.” It is better still to get to know that person, to share not only their struggles but their hopes and dreams, and to come to know them by their name.
This Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month is a good opportunity to reflect upon the words we choose. It is also an invitation to explore ways to advocate for and celebrate the dignity of people with disabilities.