Thursday, September 15th, 2011
In August of 2010, a 27-year-old British woman with learning disabilities, Gemma Hayter, was severely beaten and left naked at a railway embankment. A jogger found her body. It was later discovered that her killers had locked her in a bathroom, forced her to drink urine, shoved a plastic bag over her head and committed other unthinkable acts.
This week, two men 18 and 20 years old and a woman who’s 22 were convicted of her murder and given life sentences. Two other men got 13 to 15 years for manslaughter. They were all from Hayter’s town, and had been tormenting her while claiming to be her friends; the beating started in an apartment after a disagreement following a night out. The judge presiding over the trial described the torture and murder as “a chronicle of heartlessness” and said, during sentencing, “It is difficult to find the words to express how vile your behavior was.
A blogger for the British newspaper The Guardian, Nicky Clark, a mom to two children with disabilities, wrote a powerful post about how disability hate crimes like this begin with verbal abuse. Words such as “retard” that demean people with mental disabilities only fuel people’s loathing. As Clark wrote, “Hate speech isn’t free speech when it locks others into a prison of stereotyping and perpetrates abuse.” And if you think this sort of atrocity doesn’t happen in our country, well, Google the words “mentally disabled woman murdered” and see the horror that crops up.
Like Clark, I have spoken out about the use of the words “retard” and “retarded” and advocated for the Spread The Word To End The Word campaign, started by The Special Olympics. As the mom of a child with special needs, it’s painful to hear the words carelessly tossed around; they demean people with disabilities even when not spoken directly to them, and perpetuate the idea of them as stupid. What’s especially pained me are the defensive, rude and downright belligerent responses I’ve gotten to my requests for people to find others words to use, particularly during one campaign I did on Twitter in which I asked people tweeting the word “retard” not to.
It’s deeply troubling to think that language like this could spark hatred that kills. Obviously, Gemma Hayter’s killers had other issues, as does anyone who would torture a person with disabilities. And yet, language like this spreads the idea that people with disabilities are lesser human beings—and makes the idea of doing them harm that much easier to consider.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never harm you,” is a phrase my mother used to recite to me as a child, whenever this one bully bothered me. Sadly, that cannot be said for the word “retard.”
Rest in peace, Gemma Hayter.
I am curious to hear about your experiences: Do you hear people using the words “retard” and “retarded”? Have you stopped using them yourself?
From my other blog:
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