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Today is World Down Syndrome Day. Today, people will be wearing blue and yellow together, and sporting mismatched socks, and standing in solidarity with people who have Down Syndrome. Today, people will be showing support for a group of people who are constantly told that their potential is defined by their diagnoses…
Today I am wearing black and grey, like I do most of the time. My socks don’t match, but they never do. Today, instead of making an Instagram-able gesture, I’m choosing to challenge the casual ableism within mainstream discourse. Today, I’m choosing to speak about the way many of us use intellectual and developmental disabilities as insults.
Like most of you, I was raised to believe that my value in this world was dependent on my intellect. I was taught that the worst thing I could be as a woman, as a person, was stupid. I was taught that only through cultivating intellectual pursuits and acquiring vast knowledge could I possibly be deserving of existence in modern society.
I was taught that it’s not okay to insult people on the basis of their gender, their religion, their sexuality, their race, their economic status, their physical ability, and a million other things they couldn’t possibly help… but for some reason, intellectual capacity was fair game. For some reason, I was taught that it’s perfectly okay to call people things like “idiot,” “imbecile,” or “moron,” despite the fact that none of us have any real control over our intellectual capacity. Despite the fact that, historically, those words are actually grounded in clinical diagnoses, and that throughout history, these diagnoses have been used to deprive people of agency. To deprive people of freedom. To deprive people of things like the right to reproduce. To this day, there are still places in the United States where people who are considered to be intellectually disabled are not allowed to vote.
When we accuse someone of being stupid, we are saying that it is an insult to be like someone with an intellectual or developmental disability. When we use pejoratives derived from a person’s perceived lack of intellect, we are effectively saying that we cannot think of anything worse than being a person with Down syndrome.
People with Down syndrome are PEOPLE. People with Down syndrome have aspirations, and frustrations, and emotions. They’re human beings, with value just like the rest of us. People with Down syndrome are worthy of respect, care, consideration, just like everyone else, and they do not deserve to be your default insult of choice.
There are a myriad words to choose from when expressing ourselves, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to ones who hurt innocent people when we use them. In fact, we can pretty much completely remove the pejoratives and slurs which derive their power from insulting wide swathes of the human population, in favor of words which far more accurately express our anger, frustration, or chagrin, and if we’re so smart that we’ve considered insulting someone else’s intelligence, then clearly we’re sharp enough to come up with a better word to express ourselves than “stupid,” or worse, “r*tarded.”
If you’re not sure where to go from here, consider consulting this wheel for ideas, and stop feeding into the societal norm of devaluing people on the basis of disabilities. You should be able to do better, and people with disabilities absolutely deserve better. If the best you can come up with is, “You’re so awful, you’re like people who have disabilities,” then you’re really, really not trying hard enough.