19 Oct 2011

Today, The Indianapolis Star ran a letter to the editor that I wrote about how important it is to choose our words carefully in referring to people of diverse backgrounds, particularly people with disabilities. Below is the letter. I look forward to your comments.

“Blind.” “Crippled.” “Crazy.” Those are words that hurt. They hurt the students and parents who choose to attend Indianapolis Public Schools. They hurt the children who excel in school. They hurt the teachers who are on the front lines educating our children. They are words that hurt our entire community.

I have spent my life with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, the reason why I have always used a wheelchair. As a lawyer, husband, father and wheelchair user, I have been on the receiving end of thoughtless comments. However, I generally take those opportunities and turn them into teachable moments.

Last week, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White used those hurtful words during an interview with a local radio station where he discussed the challenges facing the state’s largest school district.

Millions of Americans live with some type of disability. Anyone, at any point in time, can be affected by a disability, whether it’s physical or cognitive. Maybe it’s an aging baby boomer in need of a joint replacement, a child with autism, or a life forever changed by an unforeseen accident. A disability is simply not a condition of a select few.

Diversity encompasses more than just race and gender; it includes disability, educational background and, of course, economic status. At the same time, this unfortunate episode highlights how important it is that we choose our words wisely, because words — and the context in which we use them — have a lasting and damaging effect.

I don’t doubt that White and the IPS system face tremendous challenges. But I hope, in this teachable moment, we all remember that we are a stronger — and better — community because of our willingness to embrace the diversity of our neighbor. Our children — and their futures — deserve no less.

Gregory S. Fehribach

Distinguished Fellow, Bowen Center for Public Affairs, Ball State University

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