Amadeo Garcia Garcia might as well be the last man on earth. He lives in the village of Intuto, Peru, on the banks of the Amazon, and he’s the last survivor of his tribe — the last native speaker of his first language, Taushiro [“Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One” — nyti.ms/2pzV1fH]. When he dies, no one will be left to speak his language. Now, while he lives out his final years, he may be the world’s loneliest man.
Imagine if no one spoke your language.
The profound connection we have with our native language is lost on most of us who are American-born English speakers. Every day we hear our language spoken wherever voices can be heard, in snatches of public conversation, on radio, TV, movies, computers, cell phones and a host of electronic devices and recordings. But Amadeo no longer hears his own language. When he speaks, his words fall on silence — and no one responds.
Does that ring a bell?
In the United States, we hear many different languages spoken, but our first allegiance, our primal identity, our ability to communicate with others, is inextricably linked to our first language, whether it is English, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Swedish, Dutch, Hebrew, Arabic, Swahili, Samoan, or one of countless other languages that make up our uniquely diverse nation. And some of us also speak a distinctly unique dialect of a particular demographic group.
Those of us with severe disabilities, for instance, speak Disabledese. Certain words or expressions yield their complete meaning only to others like us who also speak Disabledese. When we use words like “walkies” or “crips,” their connotations transcend the literal meaning of the words or phrases. These words are rich with innuendo and shared meaning. But the fullness of their meaning is only appreciated by other members of our cultural tribe. The great majority of inhabitants of this nation have never spoken Disabledese, nor will they ever.
It is no doubt a monumental stretch to compare our sense of isolation with that of Amadeo Garcia Garcia, but we do share certain characteristics that make true communication with others outside our tribe difficult and, at times, seemingly impossible. Our specialized vocabulary is at once unifying and divisive. At best it creates a sense of community among us; at worst it erects boundaries that separate us from the mainstream.
Like Trump’s proposed wall on our southern border, purpose is everything. If our purpose in speaking Disabledese is to enforce borders, it will have an isolating effect. On the other hand, if we make a real effort to translate our specialized dialect into friendly terms and make it more easily understood by others who do not speak it, we break down the great wall, and we invite others into our world, our personal space, our lives.
Now is a critical time for those of us with disabilities to reach out to people who so often misunderstand and unconsciously limit our participation in the evolving national culture. Are we willing to help them understand and appreciate our uniqueness as part of the greater “we,” not the marginalized “them?”