Tongue Tied


On a recent East coast trip I came across a sign that made me ponder a topic that I have a pretty strong opinion about.


My first reaction was that it made it sound like the handicapped person was dangerous. It’s clear upon reflection that the sign is there to protect the individual who likely has a tendency to end up on the road.

Normally I wouldn’t give this sign a second thought, but it’s a topic I’ve discussed and debated a lot. A good friend of mine works in the field and has very strong feelings about word choice. She feels that the words we use to describe people with disabilities are extremely important and campaigns against the casual use of the word “retarded” to mean stupid.

Being an English major I feel rather strongly in the opposite direction. My oldest memory of these opinions goes back to Pee Wee Herman: sticks and stones and all that. Of course, anyone who has gotten into an argument knows that words can hurt. But is it really the words or the sentiment behind it? Would it matter if I insulted you in a foreign language if you knew what I was trying to convey? In university I had many classes that studied the origin of words and how languages evolve over time. I’ve also spent many months living in a foreign country learning a new language.

Mentally retarded (originally a medical term) became disabled, became challenged, became special, became differently abled, became a person with ‘X’ disorder. The problem I have with the ever changing PC wording is that they all refer to the same thing. Words that start out positive turn negative not because the word changes, but because nasty people use it in a negative way. Any word can be given a bad meaning if enough people subscribe to it. Words evolve and change and while I know some purists will disagree, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Just like how bad and sick now have positive connotations and gay went from meaning a state of happiness to homosexuality, other words  also have the ability to change meanings.

Words are just a medium to convey thoughts and ideas. As long as those thoughts and ideas are positive I don’t think it’s rational to be so sensitive about the packaging they come in. Instead of constantly trying to out-word the mean or ignorant people in the world we should really be focusing our attention on changing underlying attitudes.

Regardless, this sign caught my attention. It does surprise me that a government issued sign uses what is now considered politically incorrect language. But I think the most surprising aspect for me was that this was even a sign. There are many other signs that could have been used that would have had the same desired effect without drawing attention to the fact that someone with a mental disability lived in that house.

But then again, if I could wear a sign that said “Caution Asthmatic” that would stop people from smoking around me, I’d seriously consider it too.

What do you think?

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