Op-Ed by Harold A Maio
A little blind girl, because she could not see him feeding his gold fish, wrote Mr. Rogers and asked him to say, to speak the words, he is feeding the goldfish. For each episode after that he spoke the words. It took but one letter. He did not act out of sympathy or empathy, but out of sheer common sense, his wisdom with children well known.
A few years ago a reporter for the Jerusalem Post wrote there is a stigma to epilepsy. I sent her this anecdote from my past: It is 1957, I am in a pre-teaching workshop at college and we are being told what to do should a student experience a seizure. We were not being alienated by word, but instructed how to help. She never again directed that term. I believe not out of sympathy or empathy, but out of sheer common sense. It makes sense to educate where you can.
The constituents of the Association for Retarded CItizens approached its administrators many years ago and asked them to change its name, they did not like being called “retarded”. The organization changed its name to the ARC, I believe out of sympathy, empathy, and pure common sense. They had simply not considered the effect of the language in their name.
We often do not consider the effect of our language. Mr.Rogers heard, the reporter for the Jerusalem Post heard, the administrators of the ARC heard, but we do not all.
We find ourselves acclimated to language long a part of our past, into our present and carry it into the future. It is not our intention to hurt, to harm anyone, we have simply become so inured to particular words that we employ them without giving thought to their intent.
Words themselves have intent. Word Is Deed. We have the power to fashion our language to intend good. Indeed, that ought be our intent. We are a helping profession.
I watch with surprise the continuing use of the term “stigma” in the area of mental health . Like the term the constituents of the ARC responded to, it is sufficiently alienating, both to the public and to those at whom we direct it for us to stop. It would be wise to do as the administrators of the ARC did and change our language out of empathy, sympathy, and plain common sense; we do not want to do harm to anyone.
A little girl who could not see asked Mr. Rogers to speak out loud that he was feeding the goldfish, so she, not being able to see, could mentally picture it alongside those of us gifted with sight. A reporter, recognizing she could educate rather than alienate, altered her approach, and a group of administrators, listening to their
constituents changed the name of their organization out of sheer respect for the people they represented.
Can we do less? Have we not that same obligation, out of sympathy , empathy and pure common sense?
And foremost out of sheer common sense.
Harold A Maio is a retired mental health editor.