Maybe I’m the dumb one
The word police are on the beat, so watch your tongues.
This past week, James Moehle and Angela Huckaby, a deaf couple, flew home on American Airlines from a beautiful vacation in Hawaii. Their luggage was lost on the flight and when it arrived, there was a note on it an employee made to another employee reading, “Please Text. Deaf and dumb.”
The deaf couple was hurt and offended and went to the media with the note. James Moehle told ABC News, “I felt lost, angry, confused, and mistreated,” and vowed to never fly American Airlines again.
American Airlines issued a statement reading, “We apologize to Mr. Moehle and Ms. Huckaby. It was clearly a very poor choice of words. We’re confident there was no ill will, but we’ll be looking into this further and will be following up with our team members at IAH and the contractor that provides our baggage delivery services.”
James Moehle and his mother don’t feel the apology is good enough. His mother said she thinks whoever wrote it should be fired and added that “he is the dumb one.”
There was a time in this country when “deaf and dumb” was the way deaf people who couldn’t or didn’t speak were described. It’s archaic and today it’s offensive to deaf people. I get it. The problem I have with it is there are obviously plenty of people who don’t know “deaf and dumb” is offensive. And “dumb,” when used in this context, isn’t referring to a person’s intelligence level. It clearly means they don’t speak.
I understand James Moehle’s and Angela Huckaby’s discomfort at seeing that message. If I were in their situation and received luggage with a note that described me as “a fat colored guy” I wouldn’t like it. The “fat” part wouldn’t bother me at all because I am fat and it’s just a descriptive term like tall or short. But “colored” is a term that has gone out of usage. Some blacks find it offensive. There are still people who use the term and don’t know it’s offensive. I’d tell the airline about it so it didn’t happen to anyone else. But I’d wait to see what the investigation revealed before demanding someone be fired.
(And before you get started, finding the N-word on a note is apples and hand grenades. It’s probably the most offensive word in the English language. It wouldn’t be credible that the user didn’t know.)
My problem is treating people who clumsily, unknowingly, use offensive words and terms the same as we would someone who knowingly used them. There are probably people reading this that don’t know that “deaf-mute” is also offensive. I once wrote a column referring to the “hearing impaired” and got called on the carpet by a sign language tutor friend of mine who informed me that it was offensive and the correct word was ‘deaf.’ I didn’t know that. Should I have been fired for not knowing?
James Moehle’s mother added, “It was extremely unacceptable, hurtful, and cruel.” Really? When I think of cruelty, it’s usually intentional. I don’t think we know that. The airline said no ill will was intended, but I’m not just taking their word for it. The fact that the note says, “Please text. Deaf and dumb.” would indicate a well-mannered cruel person. I could be wrong and whoever wrote it could be someone that hates deaf people, but I doubt it. To me, it seems like someone was just trying to tell another employee that the person can’t hear and doesn’t speak and did so using archaic terminology that they probably didn’t know was offensive.
Words change meaning in the English language and some words and phrases go out of usage or become offensive. Not everyone gets the memo at the same time. If you don’t know something is offensive, then how are you ever to learn it unless you use it and are then informed? For instance we went from ‘bastard’ to ‘illegitimate’ to ‘out of wedlock’ child. And who knows, maybe ‘out of wedlock’ is dated and offensive and I’ve just stepped in it. Should iPinion fire me for it?