I spend my professional life helping individuals and organisations get the most out of language to convey a message. I focus on their choice of words, tone, and delivery of verbal and written expression to achieve a desired outcome.
To a certain degree, we all spend our days doing this subconsciously, often paying little to no attention to how our words are received. However, none of us should take for granted the impact our words have.
This is especially true for the leaders among us who, whether they like it or not, have a further responsibility to set the standard in how we use this most powerful of tools.
With this context in mind, I was completely floored by Margaret Quirk’s choice of words towards Shane Love in a budget estimates hearing last week.
“Member, are you slow?” was her weapon of choice in a heated exchange regarding the Gold Corp Inquiry.
Slow in the context of failing to grasp a concept, slow to understand a response, slow to keep up with the conversation in the room. The use of the word slow in this context was to explicitly deride a person’s ability, contribution, and value.
Do you know who else is slow to process their thoughts, keep up with conversations, grasp concepts? My intellectually disabled son and daughter along with half a million other Australians.
And while it is easy to brush aside my reaction to a throwaway insult as being overly sensitive, the sad reality is it’s my children who live with the trickle-down effect when leaders in our communities weaponise words associated with disability.
Like many other families, we live with the consequences.
Don’t get me wrong, they have a wonderful life full of love and our family is richer because of them.
However, because society defines the word slow as “less than” and uses it as an easy justification for exclusion, we have to fight for their inclusion each and every day. It shouldn’t have to be this hard. Far too few of us are willing to wait those additional 10 seconds that someone may need and in our haste we forfeit the joy that comes from giving them the patience to achieve.
In just the last month I’ve helped a school speak to over 120 students and their parents about why it’s not OK to exclude, physically hit and verbally insult a fellow student just because he is “slow” to catch on to a situation.
When given the chance to explain the impacts of intellectual disability and how to model inclusion and patience with those who require extra time, the positive responses we receive are genuinely uplifting. We all have it in us to do better when we know better.
Sadly, all that work is wiped out when leaders flippantly throw around disability slurs to score cheap points. This is why I have been motivated to speak out on Margaret Quirk’s harmful choice of words last week. If we can’t uphold language standards in our parliament what hope do my kids have in the classroom, in future employment, and in their community?
The standard we walk past is the standard we accept. So, to Ms Quirk, I won’t let you explain this away as a description of your opponent’s “indecisive style”. You weaponised a state of being that people with intellectual disability live with daily.
Being slow to process one’s thoughts is far less shameful than being quick with one’s tongue without thought and to the detriment of those who can’t or won’t fight back.
This article was published in WAtoday on 30 May 2023 by Katie Rodwell.