I had a recent discussion with a friend who told me that a young man I knew had returned to the organization as a volunteer. She described him as the deaf teenage volunteer I had worked with some years ago. I am comfortable using the word ‘deaf’ to describe him but began to think that perhaps this word is no longer in use? However, I think my young friend probably would not be offended by the use of the word ‘deaf’ to describe a person who cannot hear. But I feel the anxiety anyway because we are constantly reminded of the insensitiveness in our choice of words.
A few years ago, I had a private conversation with a co-worker in which I used the word “crippled” instead of the word “disabled.” As soon as I said it (because it was the only word that came to mind at the moment), I had a sudden uneasy feeling that I had said something inappropriate. My co-worker made me feel worse when she scolded me for using the word. She was right but sometimes we use the wrong words even when we don’t mean to offend. I felt so bad about it, I’ll never use that word again in any context.
I choose not to describe people based on nationality, culture, skin color, sexual orientation, etc. because I don’t like labeling people. I break my own rule from time to time. Recently when meeting people again who didn’t remember my late husband when I mentioned his name, I got frustrated as I tried to describe Stephen. It was too much work so I told them that he was ‘English.’ Success! They remembered his voice and could associate a face with his name. Everyone who had worked with him over the years referred to him as ’English Steve.’ At least his nickname was much kinder than those of some of his co-workers. ‘English Steve.’ Is that inappropriate? Perhaps but I hope not. I know that my attempt to describe him by giving his country of origin would be offensive to some people.
I guess I’m admitting that I’m not perfect. I truly care about people so I don’t use words that I know will hurt them. But I’m going to make mistakes when I don’t know what words have been approved to replace the ‘offensive’ words.
Sometimes political correctness stifles honest discussion about issues when the only people who are allowed to have the discussion are those who belong to the group that is the subject of the discussion. Outsiders are told that they can’t contribute to a meaningful discussion because they don’t understand the concerns shared by those in the group. The outsiders then are criticized for their insensitivity when they attempt to speak about these issues.
I strive to be civil and sensitive to everyone I speak to and choose not to use language or labels that will offend them. It seems so difficult to have a discussion without worrying about what will offend someone and we only learn a word is considered offensive after we have offended someone. Sometimes an apology is not accepted.
Remaining silent has been a good strategy for me as it keeps me out of trouble – most of the time.