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Students/Faculty News Dr. James Rimmer July 28, 2022

Director's Notes

Rimmer has short reddish-brown hair and wears glasses, a light blue shirt with thin stripes, and a navy blazer.

James Rimmer, CEDHARS Director

Last week, The New York Times printed an excellent editorial by M. Leona Godin, a nationally known scholar and author who is blind. Ms. Godin recalls an incident where she met up with two friends who are also blind in her hometown of San Francisco. One of the women, Haben Girma, is the only deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School. Communicating with Ms. Girma involves typing into her wireless keyboard so that she can read the words on her Braille display and respond verbally. Since Ms. Godin was not used to communicating this way, she was making numerous grammatical errors. In an expression of frustration, she commented, “I feel so dumb,” which was met by a terse reply from the other person, Caitlin Hernandez, “That’s ableist.”

As some in the disability community may know, the word “dumb is still being used to describe people who are unable to speak. The moral of the story is that ableism is omnipresent, even among people with disabilities. Years of ingrained terms learned through various social interactions or the mass media has normalized the use of these offensive and extremely hurtful terms that characterize an entire subgroup of disability.

My first 25 years in higher education were spent working with people with intellectual disability, or ID. Back in the late 1970s, the term used was “mental retardation.” But sometime around the early 1990s the ID community rose up and said no more. The term can no longer be used because society has misused and abused it and by doing so, denigrated the identity of this community.

Another ableist and offensive set of terms were affiliated many decades ago with an individual’s IQ classification – “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot.” It’s doubtful that anyone who’s ever used these terms realized that they were harmful and offensive to the ID community, which is why we must continue to push for their removal from our lexicon.

The most common expressions of ableism that I hear on too many occasions from too many people are the words “idiot” and “moron” – “He’s such an idiot,” or “What a moron.” It is used widely in the media and in various day-to-day interactions to label someone who, in the opinion of the person using the term, has done something illogical or unworthy. It makes me cringe when I hear someone use the terms because it devalues an entire segment of the disability community.

Someone not knowing these terms are ableist is one thing, not letting someone know how offensive they are is another. As Ms. Godin notes in her excellent commentary: “Being unafraid to ask the question — ‘Is that ableist?’ — is a crucial step in unraveling our society’s entrenched biases and discrimination against disabled people.” Educate your friends, family members, and colleagues about what ableism is and how to avoid using terms that are offensive to people with disabilities. “Words are as fragile as eggs; once broken, they are very hard to repair.”


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