‘I’m here to get it right, not to be right’



My times of kid-less silence are often filled with podcasts. The latest is from shame-and-emotion researcher Dr. Brene Brown, who often reminds herself that “I’m here to get it right, not here to be right.” This struck me, especially in terms of language and the community found with and among those with unique needs. At its core, language is important … especially when it has to do with the dignity of another human person.

Dr. Nicole Julia, author of “The Able Fables” (check ‘em out!), says this about inclusion: “At its core, inclusion requires profound love, empathy, understanding and a willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone to invite an individual to participate fully in life’s occupations. To be included, one must be invited to participate in work, education, play, leisure, socialization and the community.”

What’s one way we can be a more inclusive Church and society?

By remembering that the language surrounding those with different abilities is constantly changing, and we must be willing to adapt.

What do we say?

Terms like the “R” word are no longer acceptable (even in name-calling) because it does not even come close to capturing the full gambit of the person with a disability and their potential. It represents a time when the research and understanding of unique abilities was not considered a priority or even a part of scientific or educational conversations.

Furthermore, “special needs” is often called inappropriate by disability advocates because, quite frankly, “their needs aren’t special.” “Special needs” was an educational term, not a disability term. Advocate Meriah Nichols states that “‘Disability’ is a particular way of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, moving, learning, sensing, being. It’s not negative. It’s a way of experiencing the world.”

Instead of “normal” try “Neurotypical.” Instead of labeling someone as “autistic,” say a person “with autism” or “on the autism spectrum.” Person-first language affirms the God-given dignity given to us all, regardless of how we see the world.

Much like a kid who is physically-typical, using two feet, a pair of shoes and a handrail to go upstairs, a kiddo with a physical disability, as an example, can move with four wheels and a chair ramp. They still both move, and that’s more important than HOW they move.

A person who cannot see can still hear that it’s time for Communion because of what the priest says. A person who cannot hear can still know it’s time for Communion because of how the priest is preparing the altar. Everybody knows it’s time to receive the Eucharist regardless of how we’re cued.

I think you catch my drift. Normalizing differences in ability is another step towards a fully inclusive society.

In a pastoral statement to the American Catholic community, the U.S. Catholic Bishops remind us  that “no acts of charity or justice can be of lasting value to persons with disabilities unless they are informed by a sincere understanding love that penetrates the wall of strangeness and affirms the common humanity underlying all distinction.” As Catholics, we’re called to love a person from the inside out. Let’s start with how we talk.

Keith is a member of the Diocesan Committee for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, Director of Marian Educational Outreach and mom of two.