A "Special" Suggestion Mar 9, 2012

Special Guest

From time to time I am invited, or more appropriately, "sucked into" debating ongoing and significant issues in the "special needs arena." One area that continues to challenge sensibilities, especially to those on the "outside of the disability box," is the nomenclature, labels, names and descriptive terms for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. If "words" do indeed mirror the mind, what exactly are we trying to reflect in the terms we use (and periodically discard, exchange, or bury)? This guest editorial by Stu Thorn is a well thought and executed challenge to all of us who have to be reminded of what exactly is the "nom de jour" for the people we support and care about so passionately. It's a reminder of why we need to either "think" outside the box or "invite" those who can, inside, to rattle our cage. As always, reader responses are encouraged ("Reader" will be used until we opt for "end user of the publication," or "recipient of generated ideas.")

Rick Rader, MD
Editor in chief
Exceptional Parent Magazine

A "Special" Suggestion
By Stuart Thorn

OK, please, please, go easy on me here. I am about to tell all you emperors that you are butt naked. I will do so with good intention, just as I expect you will resist my advice with equally well-considered intent. But, please hear me out – because as an innocent bystander, maybe, just maybe, I have a different perspective that's worth contemplating.

Among other things, I have a background in marketing. One of my first jobs out of college was as a product manager assigned to a floor-cleaning product. On my first day, a mere 10 minutes after arriving, my boss came to me and said, "Stuart, as of this very minute you have spent more time thinking about floor cleaners than your average consumer will in a lifetime." His point was simple. Keep things simple.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I met Rick Rader, who edits this magazine, and we became friends. We are neighbors in a condominium complex on the Tennessee River. I walked by while he was washing his boat, and struck up a conversation. His Brooklyn accent immediately made me curious – it isn't something heard too often in Chattanooga. I asked him about his occupation. It was equally curious. "Among other things, I look after the medical care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," he offered.

"Oh, the intellectually and developmentally disabled," I said, feeling proud that I had smoothly picked up on the appropriate jargon. "No," he retorted with a vague sound of both irritation and frustration. "People WITH intellectual and developmental disabilities."

"Didn't I just say that?" I wondered to myself. But, trying to make a new friend, I just said, "Oh."
Later, after our friendship had solidified a bit, and over a bottle of inhibition-reducing wine, I brought up this seemingly-touchy topic again.

"Rick, how is it that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are different from those who are intellectually and developmentally disabled?"
He replied, "If you refer to people as being disabled, you are labeling them. If you refer to them as HAVING disabilities, you are acknowledging their humanity, and that is so much better."

"Wow", I said, and I poured us another glass of wine. This was getting interesting, but also confusing. "What about just saying they have special needs?," I countered.

"No", he replied emphatically. I could hear his irritation returning. But, this time, in my fermented-grape-induced stupor, I pressed on.

"Why not?," I boldly, and as it turned out naively, asked.

"Because it sounds too much like, 'Special Education', and that has become a pejorative in today's society, just like 'Retarded'."

"Geez", I said, calling upon all the eloquence I could conger, now with the unsettled feeling that each of my words was being meticulously scrutinized. "OK, I understand. From now on, I will always refer to those people as having intellectual and developmental challenges." I knew as soon as the words left my mouth that I had made a horrible mistake.

"Those people?," he said, with a distinctive air of disgust. "Challenges?," he added, his voice now brimming with the downright indignation that only a New Yawker can muster. I felt myself sink in my chair. "First of all, calling them 'Those people' makes them out to be separate and unwelcome. Second, they are 'Disabled', not 'Challenged.' You make it sound like they are contestants on a game show, for God's sake!"

I was mortified. What had I done? I felt like an absolutely terrible human being. My face turned red. My palms started to sweat. I did the only thing I could do at a time like that. "How 'bout them Yankees?," I asked.

Fast forward again. As our friendship grew, so did my empathy for Rick's clients. I visited Orange Grove Center, where he works, and learned about all the good things they do there. I was so impressed, that I even gave money and sponsored their music program. I began to tell my other friends about what I had seen, trying to enlist them in the cause. But, whenever I did, I just could never seem to get it right. "Yes, Orange Grove has a music program for people with special, I mean mental ... no I mean people with intellectual and, and... developmental, that's it, developmental challenge, uh, disabilities. That's it, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," I'd finally spit it out. Somehow I always ended up sounding like Governor Perry at a debate.

So, I thought about my boss's advice. You know, the boss I talked about at the outset. The one who said not to overthink things? Great brands are single words attached to single ideas. Apple, Nike, Pepsi, Corvette. Why can't it be the same for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities? Why not, for example, just use a simple term like "Specials," as in, "I have a 'Special' son, or a 'Special' daughter, or a 'Special' student, or a 'Special athlete', or a 'Special' neighbor."
All right. Now we've gotten to the point I predicted. The point where, just like Rick, you are all starting to boil over in well-intended annoyance and exasperation and maybe even rage. You all have been so indoctrinated with this language thing that you probably are pushing back like a knee hit with a rubber mallet. But, if you are even slightly open to my thoughts, just as I have tried to be to Rick's (remember my red-faced stammering), then please give this suggestion just a moment's consideration. Think of the gay community, for example. Didn't they go through a lot of the same issues? Haven't they been ostracized and made fun of? Haven't they been subjected to pejoratives? Yet, do they refer to themselves as, "People with homosexual tendencies?" No. They adopted the word "Gay." They refer to themselves as, "Being gay." I am sure that sounded strange, at first, just as the term "Special" might if applied to those with "Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities." And, yes, sometimes the term, "Gay", is used to ridicule. But, Gays don't seem to care. They have chosen a term and they are proud of it. It is short, easy, memorable, and life goes on. Personally, I think it is one of the best marketing moves ever made. They co-opted a word, redefined it, and never looked back. They let their pride and positive attitude do their talking for them, as opposed to a clinical and complicated moniker. Yes, it is possible to overthink things, and when the Gay community decided not to, it may have been one of the most important steps they ever took to achieving the societal acceptance they always deserved.

As for Rick, maybe I should keep my opinions to myself? I'd hate to lose a good friend. Hmmmm. How did I sneak my way into this magazine that he edits, anyway? Apparently Rick is open minded enough to at least let me be heard. I'll have to remember to thank him with a bottle of wine, and maybe two tickets to a Yankees game.

Stuart Thorn is CEO of Southwire Company, headquartered in Carrollton, Georgia. In addition, he is founder of the Sharon Thorn Music Center (named in honor of his late wife) at Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In his spare time, Mr. Thorn is a published songwriter and journalist.

<< Back to EDITORIAL Page