As a writer and former English major, I know that language matters. The way we talk about our world informs the way we experience our world. Language shapes reality. And so we are teaching our kids, for example, not to say "I hate that" (they learned hate from Cinderella, of all places!). We support the "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign, which works to raise awareness about the hurtfulness of the pejorative use of the word "retarded" or "retard." We struggle, as do many people we know and love, to figure out what language to use in describing our daughter–special? different? disabled?
There are more subtle ways in which language impacts perception. A year and a half ago, I wrote about my concerns with the way Penny's new preschool described their program:
The Integrated Preschool Program is an inclusive program providing services to children who are three to six years old and are determined to be eligible for special education. The program includes typically developing peers who serve as role models, particularly in language and social skills.
And as I wrote back then, it wasn't the language in and of itself that caused concern. It was the sentence that never made it into the paragraph. It was the absence of, Children with special needs make valuable contributions to their typically developing peers…
Penny had a great year at school last year. She made friends. She learned things. She was a valued member of her school community. And yet the imbalance that existed in the description of the program continued to trouble me. We just moved back to New Jersey, and William started preschool in an "integrated" classroom (the same one Penny was a part of two years ago). They sent home an explanation of integration:
Inclusion/integration is a valuable approach because it offers a typical preschool experience to a variety of learners, with additional support available to children with special needs . . . Not only does this approach benefit children with special needs, but it benefits 'typically' developing peers as well. Children learn to see everyone in the classroom as equals, and develop strong self-esteem and social skills by knowing they can help their friends and take a cooperative role in learning and play . . . We ALL bring our own strengths and challenges to the table, and we ALL have something we can learn from each other!
Language, of course, only matters to the degree that it accurately reflects reality. In William's classroom, I know that the belief that every child brings strengths and challenges is real. I hope that my own language and, even more so, my actions, reflect my own new reality–my own belief that life is more full and rich when I not only seek to love and serve those who are different from me, but when I also accept love and care from those who are different from me. Life is better when I am not only willing to give, but also to receive.
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