Accommodations and Defaults

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Saw this today. It’s not a secret but something wonderful that was handed private to a customer by a barista at a Starbucks in Leesburg, Va.” – comment on the PostSecret postcard above

There are policies about accessibility–and they are important, there is a place and a need for them.  There are technological solutions–in fact, you can order online and go pick up your order without really having to talk to anyone (which appears to be what this customer had done prior to being handed this note).  And those too, have their uses.

But this is so much better.  Instead of asking a person who has, I’m guessing, either a hearing or speech-impairment to accommodate everyone who does not speak sign language, this barista is making an effort to speak this customer’s language.

There is no reason that those of us with fully functioning legs could not walk up and down a ramp.  That those of us without arthritis could not use a lever door handle.  That children without disabilities could not play on a playground with features that make it safe and playable for all children.  There are plenty of cases where other factors may come into play, but the times when it’s a matter of choosing this or that type of door handle–why is inclusion not the default?  And if it is a little more effort to design something a certain way or takes a little more space or–why is it that we make people who have struggled their entire lives in a world not built for them, to work even harder to accommodate the rest of us?

 

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Reappropriation

Every time some college students dress in blackface for Halloween or someone reignites the call for the name change of the DC football team or any other sports team named after a group of people, people get so quick to draw on both sides that we lose an opportunity to understand the history and why it hurts, to learn how to be respectful instead of simply trying to be inoffensive. I’m not sure what’s a good way to go about that, but I am certain that we’re generally missing the mark.

And so it was refreshing to read about the way in which the Seminole tribe works together with Florida State to celebrate its history, to keep it alive.  The “hey, don’t assume we’ll be offended or not.  Don’t speak on our behalf.  We will speak for ourselves.  We can work together so that you don’t misrepresent us.”  The exact approach won’t work for every instance, but what makes the difference here is that the Seminole tribe plays an active role in how the name is used and how the story is told.

So often it is not about who uses what words or or names tells whose stories so much as doing it without the history, without the context, without understanding or even attempting to understand.  Because we also lose when we let some stories be untold out of fear.  Because a censored history can be just as bad as an incorrect one.

Precision of Language: What do you say?

That’s so gay.
You’re retarded.
One day she’s hot, one day she’s cold.  She’s so schizophrenic!

There’s a scene in the movie The Giver where Jonas’s mother reprimands him about “precision of language” when he talks about feelings.  (Side note: I say movie as I haven’t read the book since fourth grade and can’t recall if that was the actual wording or just the script wording.  As to be expected, skip the movie, read the book.  Seriously, read The Giver.) 

There’s laziness in language–and I myself am guilty of it constantly.  Hey, can you toss me that thingamajig that’s on top of the uh, thing over there?  Or stuff.  I say stuff all the time.  I use certain phrases like muscle memory.  I’m sure the people who sit next to me at work and hear me on the phone are really sick of them.

Speaking of muscle memory and the things we don’t have to think about, and the things we don’t think about: there is laziness in language, and there is use of language that betrays the experiences and the people we’ve never considered.

Earlier today, I overheard someone say on the phone to a friend, “Oh, you guys are so gay.”  My head snapped around and I looked up to see if I was the only person who had heard this–which apparently I was.  And I could feel the red well up in me.  That stuttering that comes from the pit of your stomach and always seems to end in your guts awash on the floor and the other person mildly confused but none the wiser and mostly dry.

There’s saying “stuff” when you mean that pile of laundry or all of your belongings or all the household chores you need to do this weekend.  And then there’s saying “retarded” when you mean stupid or illogical or absurd.  Using the name of very serious illness to describe someone they don’t understand–something we do with mental illness when we’d never say, “That’s so asthmatic!”  Calling someone or something “gay” when you mean…okay, I’ve never actually figured out what exactly people mean when they call you that.

What do you say?

Sometimes I say something and sometimes I don’t, usually depending on how well I know the person or how brave I’m feeling at the moment.  I didn’t say anything today because I was angry and knew whatever I said wouldn’t come out right.  And I didn’t know if the comment was indicative of her being homophobic or being friends with people who felt that way or if it was just a habit she’d never paused to think about.  Laziness of language.

Precision of language.  Is that the tack to take?  To ask the person what they truly mean and try to offer some words that actually mean what they’re trying to express?  Buy them a thesaurus?

There was one time that Mike Huckabee was debating Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and they clearly had very strong and different opinions but were having a open and respectful debate about it.  I don’t recall the topic, but I do remember Huckabee commenting at the end about how we needed more light and less heat.

More light, less heat.  I know in my head that one should strive to educate instead of launching a personal attack.  Because, “THAT’S SO OFFENSIVE, YOU JERKFACE!” rarely succeeds in doing anything other than convincing people that you are the super-sensitive PC-language police who wants to ban all the words.  It’s not about being politically correct or even just correct.

The PC-terms change.  I’m not even sure what they are half the time.  The r-word used to be the medical term.  But that was before people began using it as a slur.  Language evolves.  Words don’t have meaning without context.  It’s not about the labels or the names or the words.  It’s about the way in which we can flippantly denigrate whole groups of people and their very human experiences and make them other, make them less than, make them something other than human beings who bleed like we do.

In the heat of the moment, it is hard to remember that other people don’t need us to protect them and beat up people who might have been mean to them.  We’d be much more helpful if we educated people who could be allies.  Maybe they really are hateful, but usually people just aren’t thinking about their choice of words.  And we are losing an opportunity if we treat them as the enemy.  Then everybody just shuts down.

That being said–or more precisely, written–it’s one thing to know or write these things and to actually communicate them verbally when your diaphragm is a fist and it’s obstructing your throat.

What do you say?

Some days not saying anything heated in return is a small victory.  But any suggestions for things to actually say in person would be welcome additions to the toolbox.