Monthly Archives: March 2009

The R word: What’s in a word?


Note: This article has also been cross-posted to  Womanist Musings.

special olympics retard






The above ad is part of a Special Olympics campaign that calls upon people

to recognize and rethink their use of the word “retard,” or as the organization would prefer, the “R-word.”

“Most people don’t think of this word as hate speech, but that’s exactly what it feels like to millions of people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends,” a statement about the campaign reads. “This word is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur.”

CNN report

Raising awareness about intellectual disabilities is a great idea. But the execution of this campaign is very problematic for three major reasons:

1. eliminating the R-word does not erase ableism,

2. setting disability against race and sexual orientation denies the realities of oppression that these groups still experience, and

3. de-linking the R-word from underlying societal power structures means that the campaign is attempting to erase a word from our vocabulary without creating any real social change.

I’ll discuss these three points in more detail below.


Eliminating the R-word does not erase ableism

The small type on this ad reads: “Most people who would never knowingly use disparaging terms don’t see a problem with retard.” To some degree this may be true. In many social settings, public use of the N-word has indeed become highly unacceptable. But racism is still omnipresent and verbally articulated, without any mention of the N-word needed.

Even in multicultural, “enlightened” Toronto, much overt racism can be heard. In my own area, I’ve often heard statements like: “The real problem in this neighbourhood is the Blacks.” “Black people are lazy. I work two jobs to stay off welfare, but they…” Erasing the N-word from socially acceptable speech has not erased the reality of racist speech.

Nor does erasing the N-word give blacks an equal position in society and equal access to resources. And the recent election of a black U.S. president has not changed that reality.

Just this morning I was saddened to hear that a female friend of mine, taking photos of a storefront on Yonge Street for a college project was harassed by the police for the crime of “walking around black”. Her little girl witnessed the entire incident. My friend had broken no laws, since she was on public property while taking a picture of a commercial building. I cannot count how often this kind of thing happens to my black friends.

Oh… but you can’t say the N-word anymore! So obviously racism isn’t so much of a problem anymore, right?

During the U.S. elections, we saw footage of people who were not reticent to make openly racist remarks and use the N-word. At least with these people, you know what you’re dealing with. It’s open and clear. It seems to me that the more liberal the social setting, the more that racism goes underground.  Black friends have sometimes said they prefer overt racism to subtle, underground racism. It’s harder to detect, harder to name, harder to fight. And it makes it easier for all us good-thinking white people to pretend that we don’t contribute to racist realities.

So I would like to say to the Special Olympics folks, when you focus a campaign on the erasure of a word – and nothing more than that –  you’re not doing anything to deal with the problem.

I would also ask: If people would stop using the R-word because it becomes socially unacceptable to do so, would that translate into respectful treatment of people with intellectual disabilities, equal access to employment and other social resources, and protection from marginalization of all kinds?


This ad implies that “Retard is the new Nigger” aka “Disability trumps race”

The Special Olympics seem to also be playing the Oppression Olympics.

The ad implies that racism and homophobia are much less of an problem than ableism. But a social justice initiative that pits one group against another is essentially trying to improve the lot of one group by minimizing the oppression of others.

This ad seems to be saying, “We’re more oppressed than blacks, latinos, and gays.” That’s a very offensive comparison, for reasons I have already mentioned. And there’s been too much competition  between oppressed groups, perhaps most noticeable after the passing of Proposition 8 in California. An important segment of the gay community felt betrayed, because the American people had elected a black man to the presidency but failed to defend the rights of gays and lesbians. In fact, some went even further by blaming blacks for being more homophobic than whites – making them responsible in large part for the passing of Prop 8. Black bloggers such as Renee at Womanist Musings quickly responded to the racist assumptions and factual errors inherent in these accusations.

This ad campaign risks setting up a similar conflict between different oppressed groups.

In fact, a discussion about this ad campaign shows how it has been received by some belonging to other oppressed groups. One commentator (referring to a diffferent ad in the series), states:

I’m Jewish and I’m personally offended that “Jew him down” is clearly written, yet Nigger, Spic & Fag are written with dashes. So basically you don’t want to “fully” offend the Niggers, Spics, & Fags, but you have no problem offending Jews?

(This person actually mixed up two ads in the same campaign, but my point is that the nature of these ads sets up the reader for these kinds of perceptions, e.g.,  that the other groups are treated more respectfully by the campaign than are Jews.)

Another commentator stated:

Small mindedness will only hurt you. Why must you call those with intellectual disabilities a negative name, if they have done nothing to hurt you? Why pick on people who can’t defend themselves in the same way that someone who was a “nigger” or “fag” can? Your small-minded comments represent your extreme insecurities, so take them someplace else.

Ah. A “nigger” or “fag” is better able to defend themselves than a person with an intellectual disability. Just take a moment to think through the implications of this comment…


I believe that unless an intersectionality analysis is applied, we will continue to see one oppressed group competing against another. Such an approach also views each group as homogenous and assumes they live with only one dimension of oppression.

In reality, there are black, latino, and gay people with intellectual disabilities. A black person with an intellectual disability will experience that disability in ways that intersect with their blackness.

I could refer back to my previous post on an anti-oppressive approach to AD/HD, in which I cited Gail Mattox, a member of the Black Psychiatrists of America. Mattox points out that black children with AD/HD receive treatment at half the rate of white children, with key factors in this disparity being: poverty, culturally inappropriate services, lack of information and misinformation in black communities, and the fact that many black children are in care. Why would it be any different for black children with intellectual disabilities?

Similarly, women with intellectual disabilities are at very high risk of sexual abuse compared to men with intellectual disabilities.

So how can you list different oppressed groups and set one against the other? By doing so, you are oppressing some people in your own group.


What’s in a word?

The R-word is a word.

Language is extremely important and, I believe, it plays a crucial role in creating and sustaining our social realities. Yes, the flippant use of the R-word is not only offensive, but continues to subjugate and stigmatize people with intellectual disabilities.However, any strategy that seeks only to erase a word from our vocabularies can never change the underlying realities of oppression.

In this campaign, the R-word has been de-linked from the power structures of a society that marginalizes people with disabilities. Instead, the R-word has been linked and compared to other hateful labels that have since been erased from the conversations of enlightened people. By decontextualizing all these words from the societal power relations they represent, this campaign will accomplish little or nothing of any substance that will help people with intellectual disabilities. The R-word becomes just a word.

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An anti-oppressive approach to AD/HD




  • AD/HD affects 5% to 10% of children and 3% to 6% of adults.
  • It is a highly heredity disorder: If one person in the family has AD/HD, there is a 25% to 35% chance that another close family member will have AD/HD.
  • Parenting children with AD/HD is stressful — 23% of parents of children with ADHD divorce, compared to 13% of other parents, according to a recent study.


AD/HD: Where are the social workers?

The problem of AD/HD has been primarily viewed from an individual perspective. It is the domain of the teachers who have to deal with it, the psychologists whose tests diagnose it, and the psychiatrists who do clinical trials on the meds that manage the symptoms.

Where are the social workers in this picture?


Societal impacts of AD/HD

AD/HD has serious societal impacts. It is dramatically over-represented among disadvantaged groups, such as the prison population and people living in poverty. Among its many consequences are higher rates of criminality, delinquency, risky sexual behaviour, high-risk pregnancies, unstable personal relationships, and lower levels of global functioning.  Adolescents 15 and older with AD/HD are far more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol than other youth, with half of all adults with AD/HD having a substance abuse problem. People with AD/HD also have high comorbidity with mental illnesses such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, and others.


A critical perspective on AD/HD

AD/HD has been socially constructed in a negative way. It is often viewed as the result of bad parenting or poor diet. The typical image of someone with AD/HD is a male child with poor grades who is disruptive and bouncing off the classroom walls.The parents of these boys are told to get them diagnosed and treated, because they are a classroom management problem (which may result in overdiagnosis of AD/HD in some situations).

Some groups of children are over-diagnosed, but AD/HD is also often underdiagnosed (girls, non-white children). In particular, very few black children receive treatment in the US. According to Gail Mattox, a member of the Black Psychiatrists of America, key factors in the fact that black children receive treatment at half the rate of white children are: poverty, culturally inappropriate services, lack of information and misinformation in black communities, and the fact that many black children are in care.

Many other children fall through the cracks. My son with inattentive AD/HD (without hyperactivity) quietly failed his way through school for no apparent reason, despite my repeated attempts to find out why. Girls are also often missed, partly because they present differently and partly because AD/HD has been associated with boys. Gifted children with AD/HD do not get picked up. They do well in school, but they still suffer from other AD/HD symptoms, such as low self-esteem, and later-life problems with substance abuse and intimate relationships.


The role of privilege in diagnosis and treatment

I think that privilege plays a big role in how a parent responds to the suggestion that their child might have AD/HD. As an educated, middle-class white woman, I took steps to research AD/HD and to get my son diagnosed and treated. This is a typical response of middle class parents. But I also have friends living in poverty who do not see the point in getting their children or themselves tested and treated. The father is functionally illiterate, probably as the result of undiagnosed AD/HD and other learning disabilities. The mother believes that both parents and at least two out of three children have AD/HD, but is overwhelmed with parenting challenges and poverty. Nor does she see a benefit to a diagnosis. Other families in similar social locations are simply struggling so much that they can’t face adding anything else to their mix of problems. Or they get offended — “There’s nothing wrong with my kid.”

Often I have wondered, “How could one approach a disadvantaged family in a way that helps them understand how they might all benefit by diagnosis and treatment of one or more members?” For sure it would be quite different from how I would approach a middle class family.


The social work contribution

The great inequities in diagnosis and treatment across social location is one important issue that social workers should be addressing. Access to treatment is another, because while Ritalin may be covered by government medication plans, multi-modal treatment for AD/HD is only available for those who can pay for it.

However, I see a double bind in providing improved access to diagnosis and treatment. Black children are currently being treated for AD/HD at half the rate of white children. But if they are labelled as having AD/HD, will they not be further disadvantaged, more so than the white children? Will the diagnosis that is meant to help them actually create additional barriers to accessing societal resources — an intersection between AD/HD and race?


There is a crying need for anti-oppressive social workers to contribute to research, advocacy, and practice related to AD/HD. I believe that AD/HD increases the risk of poverty and the intergenerational perpetuaton of poverty, considering all the above factors.

There are many ways that social workers should be getting involved with the problem of AD/HD among children and adults — whether they are clinical or community workers, whether they are guided by a systems model or an anti-oppressive approach. I plan to work in this area — what about you?

Queer is a state of mind


Note: This article has also been cross-posted to Womanist Musings.



Heterosexuality: It’s not just about who you sleep with

Most people think that heterosexuality is about being attracted to the opposite sex. But it’s more than that. Much more.

Heterosexuality is a lifestyle. Even more so, it’s a powerful social construction that shapes and maintains people’s identities. It acts as a lens that filters people’s understandings and experiences of their world. Heterosexuality also underlies social concepts such as normal, family, family values, Christian, moral, sacred…  And of course, heterosexuality occupies a privileged social location  — even more so if you are also male, white, and able-bodied.


Gay liberation: Alternative sexual identities

The Gay Liberation movement of the late 1960s contested the hegemony of heterosexuality. It gave voice to alternative identities of  gay and lesbian. These activists changed society. They created alternative cultures and ways of being. They critiqued the heterosexual norms and fought hard for acceptance and equal rights.

The problem is that gayness was often constructed in an essentialist manner – you are gay or you are straight. The biological argument was important, because if you are born gay, if it’s part of your genetic make-up, then it’s not your fault that you are gay. You didn’t choose to be gay, nor can you choose to be straight. Biological determinism takes sexual identity out of the realm of morality.

The categories of straight, gay, lesbian were often quite clearly boundaried. And they were sometimes defined in either/or terms, with gay being set in opposition to heterosexuality. One could cross over, but only in one direction — from straight to gay.


More categories emerge!

Since then, categories have been multiplying. It turns out that gay, lesbian, and bisexual or not sufficient to describe the range of sexual identities. In Toronto, we currently use LBGTTIQ2 (expanded from the former LGBTTQ): lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and 2-spirited. Each of these identities has its own advocacy groups and support networks to address issues unique to that group.


Crossing boundaries is problematic

The boundaries around these sexual identity groups are sometimes problematic. For example, some lesbians ultimately found they were also attracted to men. They moved from the category of lesbian to the category of bisexual, which has been a problematic one. Many lesbians believed bisexual-identified women were not willing to give up their heterosexual privilege and commit to a lesbian identity. But straight people did not accept them among their ranks either. Thus lesbians who entered into relationships with men were often seen as traitors and shunned by their former communities.

Some of my friends have been through this evolution. For example, my friend Robin came out in adolescence as a lesbian. Her parents were unable to accept this identity, resulting in ongoing conflict. Robin embraced her lesbian identity. She cut her hair very short, wore men’s shirts, jeans, and boots, and became a committed activist to the cause. Her most important relationships were in “the community” and she flourished. But in her early 30s, she began to realize she was sometimes attracted to men. She experienced great inner conflict — was she a true lesbian or a pretender? Was she reverting to an easier identity? What the hell was going on with her?


The shift to queer

Eventually, Robin went away for a while and took time to reflect on these questions. When she came back, her hair was shoulder length and curly and she wore a flowing skirt. I barely recognized her! Robin eventually made a shift in how she identified herself, from lesbian to queer.

Some straight people still have trouble with the word queer, viewing it as a politically incorrect word. It’s not. It has a meaning that is distinct from gay and lesbian. There are even queer studies now. So you can use it — but know what it means.

Queer is an alternative identity to straight. It rejects all other categories of sexual identity. Straight remains normative and has privilege attached to it. Queer encompasses the entire range of non-straight identities — and is not limited to LBGTTIQ2.

Queer views sexual identity as something that is fluid, situational, and shifting. For example, if you come out at age 40, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were living the “wrong” identity your entire life. It doesn’t mean everything before now was a lie. Sexuality is very complex and multidimensional. Coming out doesn’t necessarily completely annul everything that came before it.


Queer is a state of mind

More than anything, I view queer as a state of mind.

Queer does not have a need for labels. And it recognizes that sexual identity does not necessarily stay static over time. Queer is transgressive and boundary crossing. It undermines and destabilizes identities and categories. That’s one reason why it can be so threatening to straight people.

Queer dissociates itself from heterosexuality. With the important exception of the power issues attached to heterosexuality, straight is irrelevant to queer. Queer is a different paradigm altogether.

Queer does not name the sexuality of other people. It listens and accepts people’s self-identifications. It is open and curious about the incredible diversity of sexual experience. Queer accepts that people can choose what they want to do and not do — not because of societal strictures but because of their own preferences and values. (Please note that I do, however, limit my definition of queer to anything that happens between two consenting adults, as defined by the legal age of consent.)

Let me give an example of how I view queer as a state of mind. I know of a lesbian couple who lives in suburbia with two kids, an SUV, and a dog. They belong to the PTA and they vote conservative. They do not have a critical consciousness about their sexual identity and they will say that they never have a problem being lesbian moms in their community. According to my definition, these lesbians have more in common with straight than queer. They are living a straight lifestyle, they adhere to their community’s values, they have similar opinions on most things as their neighbours. There is nothing wrong with living in this way. But I don’t have much in common with these women.

On the other hand, there are some heterosexual people that I consider to be more queer than straight. If I tell you this, I am giving you a high compliment! Although you may never desire anyone other than your opposite-sex partner,the way you think about the world and about sexuality is open, fluid, shifting, and you have taken time to really listen to people who identify as queer. That’s what I mean when I say that queer is a state of mind.



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