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Ableist Language: Avoiding it With Our Babies

I try to avoid ableist language in my everyday life. At my day job, I’ve revised our marketing materials to remove dated references, scold my husband when he says something “inappropriate” (he’s learning), and try to keep current in my social justice reading. It’s a conscious decision I make regularly, and I’m even more conscious of the language I use now that Baby Zeus is nine months old. She’s a tiny little sponge right now and knows, I swear, every single thing we say.

Baby Zeus is a very solid babbler. She makes a ton of weird-ass dinosaur noises. She “mamamas” and “yayayayas” and does a really guttural throat noise that makes me think we should probably teach her a language with lots of glottal stops because I sure as hell can’t produce that sound and neither can her father. But none of these noises yet have directionality. They aren’t words. Maybe “puh” is when she looks at our dog…but probably not. They’re steps towards oral expressive language, but she’s got a bit to go before her first word in spoken English.

That last sentence was pretty specific on purpose. We’ve been doing some basic American Sign Language with Zeus since she was about three months old. Our goal is to teach her some expressive language that she can use while her oral language catches up. There are a ton of different articles out there on the benefits of encouraging children to learn multiple languages when they’re very young, especially signs that can help them communicate more effectively and develop a broader vocabulary. The National Association for the Deaf speaks positively about teaching children signs as a benefit for both the hearing and deaf community.

So, with that said: we sign “milk,” “more,” “all done,” “water,” “food,” and “thank you” to her on a very regular basis. We sign the word as we talk, emphasizing those basic terms. “Milk” was the first word we focused on and the first word she responded to, though she hasn’t been able to replicate the sign. She is, however, a VERY active user of “more” (and has occasionally thrown an “all done” at us at mealtimes…but, let’s face it, she loves food and doesn’t really want to be “all done”). She’ll do a casual “more” while setting her spoon down to be loaded with cereal. She’ll frown and push a “more” at us for more meatballs. Baby Zeus knows what she wants and how to ask for it. I’m proud of her.

Last week my husband commented that we were still waiting for Zeus’ first word. I paused for a second and realized…she HAS her first word. It’s “more” and she’s been doing it for nearly a month now. She does it with feeling and emotion and directionality and everything that makes a word a word. Without realizing it, we were using ableist language. She can’t use oral language to say “more” so it doesn’t count as her first word. But it does. So we had a chat. 

And tried to grab a video of her signing “more” to share as her first word on social media. 

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