Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Diversity Committee: We Are Lawyers. We Know How Much the Wrong Words Matter.

By Cathy Kamm 

       A couple of years ago, a family friend, Tyler Crose, who happens to have Down syndrome, posted something on Facebook that made me cry: “Do. Say. The. R. Word. Me. Cry.” Words are powerful. Words are beautiful. Words hurt. The words Tyler wrote stuck with me and, in part, served as the inspiration for this article. 

       Many people know that I have a brother, John, who also has Down syndrome. John is “lower-functioning” than his friend Tyler, so my family ― most vocally and most often, my mother ― has been John’s voice through the years as we have advocated for his education, services, and quality of life. Although I have always felt confident advocating for John in these areas, discussing the “R-word” has always made me uncomfortable.

       I remember one of the first times ― and the last ― I used the “R-word” to refer to something negatively. I was a young teen, and I will never forget how my dad’s face looked like I had slapped him. He immediately yelled at me that I was to never use that word in that manner again. He didn’t have to explain why. Even though I was using the word just like many others as a common slang term and “didn’t mean to” offend John or the many other people who live with disabilities every day, I did. 

       Tyler is brave. Tyler’s “crusade” to stop the use of the “R-word” leads him to speak up like my dad did when he hears someone say it. I am not brave. Despite the sting I feel when I hear someone use the “R-word” derogatively, I haven’t found the right approach to explain why there are so many better ways to make a point in a way that doesn’t belittle and demean a large population of incredible people. So this is my chance.

       As lawyers, we choose our words carefully. We do it to craft our claims and confront the opposing side’s arguments. We do it to benefit our clients and ourselves. And as lawyers, and more importantly as people, we should make similar choices in our everyday language ― we owe it to ourselves and our profession to be better. I highly doubt most lawyers would think it appropriate to use the “R-word” disparagingly in correspondence, court filings, or oral arguments. There are far better and more appropriate words to convey what you mean. If something is pointless, misguided, or irrelevant ― why not say that?

       We are better than words that insult, upset, and offend others, especially those who often do not have a voice to share how hurtful those words are. People often say they “don’t mean any offense,” but the reality is your words have meaning and cut deep. If you wouldn’t say the “R-word” around someone who has a disability, then I submit that you shouldn’t say it at all. Tyler would be the first to tell you and say it better than I ever could: “Do. Say. The. R. Word. Me. Cry.”