words matter

many of you may already be well too aware of the recent kerfuffle surrounding GQ's publication of an article in which the author likened Bostonians' fashion sense to Down syndrome. i refuse to use the exact analogy employed by the author, but suffice it to say it stung many of us who have children or relatives with Down syndrome.

lots of folks have written very eloquent letters and complaints to GQ about the use of the analogy.  I favor one, in particular, because of its brevity, accuracy, and persuasiveness.  The author is a doctor at Children's National Hospital in Boston, works with individuals with Down syndrome, and has a sister with Down syndrome - so he qualifies as an expert on the issue as far as i am concerned. you can read his discussion of the GQ article here: Dr. Skotko response to GQ article

it's worth a read not only for those affected by Down syndrome - the parents, siblings, grandparents, extended family, friends, caretakers, educators, and the like - but also for the population at large.


well, simply put, words matter.

if you turn on the t.v., read the newspaper, listen to our politicians interact, overhear a conversation at a sporting event, or simply walk or drive down the street, you are likely all too often exposed to incivility in both word and action. i am just as culpable as anyone else, so i don't say this lightly or as though i am immune from the critique.

it is entirely too easy to speak in a gossipy, hostile, unkind, derrogatory, or aggressive manner. sometimes it may feel as though general society, from the workplace to the homefront, entices us to engage in incivility in our language. why? because all too often, power, authority, exclusiveness, and control are associated with it. indeed, what follows more closely on the heels of words than action?

many likely quandry "if i speak ill of another to advance my own agenda or persuade you to agree with my argument (which is not unlike what the GQ author did), and i am successful in doing so, why wouldn't i continue to employ such linguistic tactics?"

they are only words, after all.

but when it comes to defining in negative terms groups of people by a diagnosis or a disability or a physical attribute or any other distinguishing characteristic, we run the risk not only of undermining their power, individualism, and value in our world, but we also lessen ourselves. we become nothing more than mouthpieces for ignorance at best and vitriol at worst.

we become less human, less humane, and less able to truly experience the beauty and uniqueness of every person - be it someone with Down syndrome or not.

when you really think about it, we are all the "others" to someone else. we are all divisible by gender or race or weight or socio-economic status or sexual orientation or disability or diagnosis or educational background or skill set or job sector or, or, or....the list goes on and on. some love dogs, while others love cats. some are into politics and others abhor it. some are religious and others atheists. some are vegetarians while others are devout carnivores.

we can find a reason to define ourselves by our differences in nearly any aspect of our lives. we can make others feel as though they are and should remain on the outside, or we can embrace others and enrich our tiny, self-defined worlds.

in the end, it is a choice.

so is our choice of words - and let's not kid ourselves. they matter. a lot.

so, with these humble words, i want to applaud Dr. Skotko and all of those who stand together beside and with those with Down syndrome. Who embrace them as one of "us" and do not seek to use them to distinguish them from anyone or anything in a negative or derrogatory way, even in the world of fashion.

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