Using words with care

I am fortunate to have fairly good hearing, but I am aware that it is not as good as it once was. Yesterday we had a few minutes to wait in the car while my son ran an errand. I was playing a word game with my granddaughter who was sitting in the row behind me as we waited. She has discovered “knock knock” jokes, but doesn’t quite understand how humor works. But she knows that her grandfather loves word games and she can raise laughter and a good feeling by trying to make knock knock jokes. Because I was sitting in front of her, I didn’t always turn around to look at her when she spoke. I discovered that there were several times when I didn’t fully understand what she said. For example, she said “Barbie” referring to a doll and I heard “Bobbie,” the name of a boy. Our granddaughter has no problem correcting me when she knows I have misunderstood, so I had reason to listen very carefully. But I simply didn’t hear every nuance of what she was saying. I had to ask her to repeat several times during the few minutes we played the game.

So far my hearing has not prompted me to investigate hearing aids. I have had a simple hearing test administered by my doctor at my annual check-up, but have not gone in for a full test by an audiologist. When my hearing loss becomes more severe, I assume there will come a time for me to be tested. I suspect that my closest family members will be the ones to notice and urge me to seek a remedy for my lack of hearing.

The reality is that most of us will experience a degree of disability due to a lack of hearing at some point in our lives. Everyone I know who has lived to be older than 100 years has had significant loss of hearing. I can recall many conversations with elders in which I strained to make myself heard and I have a pretty loud voice and am trained in projection and speaking slowly and clearly. I invested a lot of energy in speaking clearly and being understood in four decades of being a preacher. I had to learn quite a bit about microphones and sound systems so that those who came to church could hear and understand what I was saying.

All of that, however, is not the same thing as being completely deaf. There is a rich culture in the community of people who are profoundly deaf. Many who are born deaf learn a sign language such as American Sign Language. And like other languages, ASL carries with it a distinct culture, humor and capacity to express what it means to be human. Most of us who experience the partial deafness that comes with aging don’t know much about how it is to be unable to hear. You can tell in part by the language we don’t use: sign language. You can tell in part by the language we do use: spoken language.

Of course there are many people who are fluent in multiple languages. You don’t have to be deaf to learn sign language and there are plenty of deaf persons who are fluent in the language we speak. Some can read lips very well. Others read written words. Many persons who are deaf are excellent writers and editors. They know what we say and how we use words. They also recognize it when we use language in ways that is inaccurate and sometimes hurtful. When it comes to deafness, news headlines are particularly bad in the way they use deafness in negative ways. I don’t know how many times I’ve read headlines that speak of people “turning a deaf ear” to problems. It might be the weather forecast, or an appeal to a legislative body, or almost any other topic. Using language that way clearly uses the disability of deafness to refer to willful ignorance. Deaf people are not more ignorant than those of us who can hear. And they are definitely more intelligent than those who chose to be willfully ignorant.

We simply need to be more careful with how we use words. It isn’t just deafness. I am struck at how frequently I read or hear language that might be hurtful to people who have disabilities or suffer from mental illness. American slang is filled with such references. A poor choice is referred to as “dumb” or “lame.” An annoying habit might be called “OCD.” A creative person is called “crazy” or “psycho.” Too often phrases like that are used in ways that can be hurtful to those who have disabilities or are the victims of certain illnesses.

It can be hurtful when people excuse their ableist language by labeling the attempt to get them to use more inclusive language as “political correctness.” Of course there is a political aspect to our use of langue and language is used to obtain and maintain power over others in the political arena, but it isn’t just a matter of being politically correct when someone asks another to refrain from using language that is harmful. Words and how we use them can hurt others.

About 15% of the population has some significant disability. And those of us who don’t have a disability are able only temporarily. An accident can render on disabled in a few seconds. Age can cause disability that comes on more slowly. Remembering the centurions I have known, every one of them used a wheelchair for mobility at some point in their lives. All of them had loss of hearing and loss of vision that was significant enough to make them be seen as disabled. Learning to use language that is not hurtful of those with disabilities is important if for no other reason that every one of us will one day experience disability.

Spending more time with those who live with disabilities is teaching me to be more careful with the language I use. It may also be helping me prepare for my own future.