And here is yet another letter to the editor on the subject of language, attitudes, and negativity on campus. Which leads to the question: Why do our attitudes and speech matter so much?
The fact is that we are not just isolated individuals going about our daily lives leaving the existence and attitudes of others untouched. The ideas which I might present or support (consciously or unconsciously) may be adopted by others, particularly if I am in a position of influence. The same applies to the actions and attitudes of others affecting my own belief systems and actions. What I see commonly in the behaviour of others also shapes what I deem acceptable on a social level. Hence, the concepts of “societal norms” and “socialisation” exist.
We represent the small percentage of the world’s population that actually gets to attend university. Given this, you would think that, as the most privileged in terms of access to education, we would also be among the most enlightened people on the planet. You would think that we would further realize that we have the responsibility to be aware enough to retain a certain level of respect towards all people, and ensure that our speech (particularly the public expression of ideas) and actions do not cause harm to identifiable segments of society. Those who identify as members of the different abilities community, as a group, already have a history of being marginalised within our culture and therefore it is very important to ensure that our speech and actions do not cause further damage.
This is why I was so disappointed with the way one of my professors decided to speak flippantly of mental illness in order to illustrate a concept in International Law a few weeks ago. The comment basically implied that mental illness renders people incompetent as agents in domestic legal systems. Further, it seemed from the comment that the behaviour of those “mentally unstable” individuals ought not to be taken seriously as a rule, as these individuals do not actually have control over their actions. This is arguably not the case, as the term “mental illness” can refer to a variety of different disorders, all of which manifest themselves in different ways in different people. Those who might face mental illness can and do contribute to society at every level, and therefore should not be dismissed in this way. To speak like this seriously stereotypes and stigmatises mental illness, which is the complete opposite of what we as a community should be working towards.
In yet another instance, a different professor recently used the word “retarded” to describe university policy on course scheduling, trying to convey that whoever designs the course timetables is clearly unintelligent. I am positive that she was unaware that this use of the word’s stereotype, and thus can be considered disrespectful to those with different intellectual abilities as an entire group. I am certain that not many people are conscious of the fact that the word “retarded” was originally used to describe a very particular type of intellectual disability, but has become a synonym for “idiotic” behaviour, and is thus stigmatising different intellectual disabilities by association.
Both of these comments come from people in positions of influence that I and other students respect a great deal. While I do not believe that they had the intention to be discriminatory or offensive in any way, the fact remains that they were completely unaware that this type of language reflects attitudes strongly influenced by ableist thought. However, I don’t mean to go on a self-righteous rant. I have used ableist words in the past also, before I was aware of the reality of ableism inherent in our culture. What I do want to do though, is encourage every member of the UTM campus community to be open to examining the language that we use every day, critically.
In order for this to happen, however, we need to educate ourselves and honestly evaluate whether we have a good understanding of those who might appear to be different from us, with whom we share the university experience. If we do not truly understand how those with different abilities wish to be treated, we must then ask ourselves, why is this the case? It appears to me that the best way to break down the barriers to the inclusion of people with different abilities, open our hearts and minds, and kill stereotyping and stigma, is to start forming friendships in the unique opportunities which our university classrooms provide. I would hope that you agree.
I truly hope that as students we will make the decision to speak conscious of our responsibility to respect those with different abilities in the future.
UTMSU Accessibility Coordinator