Words matter: Inclusion needs to be internalised - Hindustan Times

Words matter: Inclusion needs to be internalised

ByHindustan Times
Mar 24, 2023 11:38 AM IST

The article has been authored by Shefali Tripathi Mehta is part of the publication and communication function, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Think about it - who uses ‘fat’, ‘ugly’, or ‘crazy’ for people in these times? School and neighbourhood bullies? Parents and elders, who in doing so are being ‘bad’ examples for their children? Puffin Books has not retracted its move to rewrite language deemed offensive in Roald Dahl’s classics as is being highlighted in media. This ‘rewritten’ version will remain in circulation while the parent company, Penguin Random House will republish the unedited titles as part of ‘The Roald Dahl Classic Collection’.

Parenting tips to help your child recognize and deal with bullying at school (Mikhail Nilov)
Parenting tips to help your child recognize and deal with bullying at school (Mikhail Nilov)

In replacing words considered offensive in our times, Puffin Books’ effort to ensure that it [the stories] can continue to be enjoyed by all today's needs to be applauded. Not just as one working in the area of primary school education or as a volunteer with an organisation working to empower children with disabilities, but as someone who constantly engages with young children in informal spaces and as a mother, I am on the side of the publisher who took this pathbreaking step.

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How do you tell young children to not judge others by their appearances if central to the characters in their stories are their physical attributes and peculiarities? Stories are the most powerful medium of helping children see the world as an inclusive place – where they will not refuse to sit next to a child belonging to a different religion, where they will include the child in a wheelchair in the game of catch, where there is no bullying, no alienating of any other child over anything that is not ‘usual’ or the norm. How does one help a child learn to accept the ‘otherhood’ of others when it comes to religion, caste, class or gender but not when they are ‘different’ in appearance? For the longest time, characters who are obese, limp, stammer, wear spectacles, are nervous or fail have been caricatured in stories, while their readers are expected to overlook these personality traits in people around them. Inclusion has to be internalised in every way possible – through literature, media, and the conduct of parents, teachers, and elders.

Are we living in two parallel worlds? One, in which every word that goes out is ‘audited’ for the consumption of a woke audience, where the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ is used in place of ‘he’ or ‘she’ and in another, we are outraged if terms that are no longer compatible with our current realities and sensibilities are replaced.

In editing our magazine for school teachers, we are constantly putting our own sensitivities to test. One author had used ‘the longest walk for their little feet’ to describe the furthest the pre-primary children walked during nature walks. My colleague found the reference to ‘little feet’ belittling. We removed it even though we thought it created a clear image of what the author was trying to convey. We also ruthlessly strike off ‘mother nature’ that we consider to be in the category of ‘mankind’ and ‘lady-luck’- fountainheads of gender stereotyping. Gender-based stereotyping is so deeply ingrained in our generation that most of our writers involuntarily use ‘she’ and ‘her’ for a schoolteacher.

In a climate where the use of every word is contested; one learns to substitute ‘first-generation school-goer’ for ‘first-generation learner’ (a phrase that dismisses all the learning from life and living that those who have never been to school possess); ‘first language’ or ‘home language’ in place of ‘mother tongue’, but to know while using ‘mainstreaming’ that it might be derisive even when it best conveys what it means because it raises the question of why mainstreaming is the norm, is a different keyboard game altogether. Many of our contributors think nothing of using ‘normal’ for ‘regular’ (‘normal school’, ‘normal timings’). We are constantly replacing ‘normal’ (‘normal school’, ‘normal timings’) with ‘regular’ for the former being the antonym of ‘abnormal’ and the implied assumption.

For the longest time, we have cringed at the use of ‘specially-abled’ and ‘differently-abled’, patronising terms that continue to focus on the disability and not the person. Currently, there is a steady move towards phasing out the word ‘disability’ because it pulls us into the quagmire of what is ‘ability’ and what ‘disability’ is. This will thankfully automatically annul ‘special ability’ and we can head to a complete acceptance of ‘diverse ability’; an acceptance of the fact that people have ‘diverse’ not ‘special’ needs. A similar move is on for ‘accessible’ in place of ‘disabled’ in labelling parking lots and restrooms. So, we must begin, each time, by questioning the norm and reflecting on why it is the norm. Generally, this sensitivity is enough to light up most of one’s writing path.

Just yesterday, we rejected a cover photo for showing in the background a picture of two individuals with the words ‘thin and fat’ used to describe them. And I wrote recently about deciding not to gift my seven-year-old friend Dr Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go because I found myself cringing at the use of ‘you’ll be the best of the best’, and ‘you will top all the rest’. We cannot move towards inclusion without acknowledging the implicitness of words in creating hierarchies. Each word or concept put out there for consumption by our children must be carefully picked so that they internalise kindness, mutual respect and fraternity over everything else.

The article has been authored by Shefali Tripathi Mehta is part of the publication and communication function, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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