This guest post is from reader Eunita Winkey. She is a mother of two children with special needs and an educator with 20 years experience. In September, she attended Oprah's The Life You Want Weekend in Washington, DC, an event meant to empower attendees and help them live their dreams.
I attended Oprah’s Life You Want Weekend a few months ago because the death of my father, my son's mental health challenges, my husband's health and advocating for my daughter's education have been challenging. Attending the event gave me a place to renew my faith, have hope and heal. I received all that, until I went to Iyanla Vanzant's session.
She was the last of the motivational speakers. Ms. Vanzant’s presentation consisted of soft music as she reflected over her life’s journey of what she called “spiritual special ed.” Based on the audience’s reaction, I could not tell if they were laughing at the term, or laughing at how Ms. Vanzant dramatized her story. Either way, I was shocked hear someone use the term “spiritual special ed” to describe the challenges women face in life.
I researched the term “spiritual special ed” and learned that in the 1995 book Ms. Vanzant authored titled Value in the Valley: A Black Woman's Guide through Life's Dilemmas she stated (p. 47), “When you are Spiritual Special Ed, other people laugh at you. They listen to your story and shake their heads." She also said (p. 48), "Trying to prove to yourself and the world that you are right eventually renders you spiritually retarded, a candidate for Spiritual Special Ed, unable to move from point A to point B."
When she was interviewed by Nancy Redd of HuffPost Live in 2013, she said (minute 19:17), “We live in a society where we are emotionally retarded” and (minute 20:58) “Are we going to be in special ed forever?"
My son and daughter would be devastated if they ever heard how Ms. Vanzant uses “special ed" and "retarded." The words are demeaning to people with special needs, even if she does not mean them to be. People with special needs already face enough stigma in their lives. My daughter had one friend from elementary to high school. She would cry about not having friends, and how differently children treated and judged her. My son is a social person who does not want people to treat him as if he has a disability.
The word "retarded" is demoralizing, so much so that there are laws against its usage. Back in 2009 the family of Rosa Marcellino—a girl with Down syndrome, then 8 years old— helped introduce a bill in the Senate to banish the term "mentally retarded" from our official lingo. "The word 'retarded' is slang to call someone stupid, and we know Rosa is not stupid at all," Rosa's brother, Nick, told ABC News. "Words are important." As he also noted, "Even good kids use the word, not realizing that they're talking about people like my sister." In 2010 President Obama signed Rosa's Law into legislation, requiring the federal government to strip the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from federal health, education and labor laws. “Intellectual disability” or “individual with an intellectual disability” are now inserted in place of the outdated terms.
About a week after I heard Ms. Vanzant use those words at the Oprah weekend, I emailed a version of this article to her spiritual assistant, who I'd also met at the September event the year before. I got no reply. I reached out to Ms. Vanzant and Oprah by email and again, received no reply.
I am speaking out because I strongly believe we must be mindful of the terms we use, how we use them and the audience we deliver them to. We must all accept the fact that words have meanings and those meanings can impact how people feel about themselves. In fact, at the end of Ms. Vanzant's message, Oprah stated that “Words are powerful.”
Yes, I agree—words are powerful and given the platform she has, Ms. Vanzant’s words are very powerful. It's why I felt compelled to write this to inform and educate Ms. Vanzant and others that the terminology used to refer to people with special needs has changed.
As a parent advocate of special needs children, I continue to be a voice for my children and others. However, I am concerned how Iyanla, Oprah and their fans will respond. I do not want any social media attacks against Iyanla or Oprah. I want this to be a teaching moment to the world.
In order to raise women up, we do not need to put down people with intellectual disability.
All of us, including Ms. Vanzant, need to be careful about stigmatizing people with special needs. Calling someone “spiritually retarded” and “a candidate for spiritual special ed” is inappropriate, hurtful and reinforces negative stigmatization against innocent people.
In that HuffPost video, Ms. Vanzant also said that her "vision" and "purpose in life" (minute 20:27) "is to support and facilitate the evolution of human consciousness."
Evolving the way we talk about people with disabilities is something many people still need to do. I call on Ms. Vanzant—a sensitive and compassionate woman—to change her language.
Image of microphone: Flickr/viewfinder; Vanzant: Flickr/Leah Carey