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“Where did you take the kids today?” asked an intrigued individual. My group of participants with developmental disabilities had just returned from one of their weekly field trips. Every week other community members are so eager to hear what they have done. From mini-golf to canine agility training, they really do it all.
I answer this member’s question by telling him how much fun we had bowling, so-and-so bowled 3 strikes in a row, the alley gave us free popcorn- yet while I’m chatting there is something throbbing at the back of my mind. He said kids. This word strikes me, because this is not a group of children but a group of adults, the oldest being in his 60’s. This completely innocent mistake provokes me to ask myself, ‘How do people view adults with developmental disabilities?’
[bctt tweet=”How important is our use of language towards people with disabilities? VERY important.”]
I cannot generalize this to our entire community, but it does prompt me to ponder what opinions are within it. Our Jewish community is very much onboard with inclusion. Members with disabilities are welcomed into our center with open arms. Each time an individual has referred to a participant as a ‘kid,’ there has been no malicious intent. The art of language is tricky, yet one word can speak volumes.
Although it is natural for me to be defensive of my group, I wonder what potentially not-so-negative implications this error of language could imply. Children are the responsibility of adults, and adults know that children need this support to thrive. Children are offered more patience, and are generally seen as endearing and vulnerable. Could this mistake be rooted in the fact that our community feels responsible for the support of these vulnerable adults? We value taking care of each other, and believe that everyone does better when everyone does better. Maybe those that say ‘kids’ accept those with disabilities as their dependents in an “it takes a village” sense. There is no doubt that in many places in society, no one takes responsibility for the community as a whole, which allows adults with disabilities to fall through the cracks or worse, be discarded from the community.
My initial thought was that these adults are referred to as children because many times cognitively they are more similar to typically developing children. I also wondered if referring to them as children was a type of “othering” or (according to Google) to “view or treat as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself.” Are my participants thought of as so drastically different from typically functioning adults that they couldn’t possibly be adults themselves? My participants have jobs, they date, they are activists- the list of similarities goes on and on. Are our adults viewed as incapable of “adult” tasks and responsibilities and therefore called kids? Are they less than?
[bctt tweet=”Looking at the language we use allows us to better understand the current state of #inclusion”]
My aim is not to shame, but to prompt careful reflection. Everyone is on her or his own place in the journey of understanding and living inclusion. The purpose of publicly dissecting this recurring use of language is simply to reevaluate our lenses, better understand the current state of inclusion, and continue to grow as an inclusive community.
Leah Wing is the Inclusion & Accessibility Coordinator at the St. Paul JCC. Leah has a Bachelors of Science in Youth Studies from the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work. Prior to her role at the St. Paul JCC, Leah held positions in a wide variety of disability-related settings, mostly focused on working with children with autism. For 30 years, the St. Paul JCC has been a trailblazer in the world of Inclusion. The St. Paul JCC is proud and honored to be one of the five winners of the 2014 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion.