Casual words, unintended consequences

The words that we choose to say, carry weight. Some fleeting remarks, often said without malice, may cause harm.

The words that we choose to say, carry weight. Some fleeting remarks, often said without malice, may cause harm. For example, negative remarks about another person’s physical appearance can affect the individual. Such off-hand or casual remarks can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy or exclusion, and for some individuals navigating life with disabilities, they often find themselves vulnerable to the unintended consequences of casual speech.

When he was growing up, Marcus Lim (above), 26, learnt to turn a deaf ear to taunts. “One-eye-dragon” was what many of his schoolmates called him because of glaucoma in his right eye. Marcus’ condition, which causes vision loss and blindness due to damaged optic nerves, continues to draw attention from strangers. A child recently exclaimed to her mother: “Mommy, look at his eyes!”. This drew unwanted attention from the crowd which made him uncomfortable.

Magdalene Tong (above, front row, first from right) also has similar experiences. The 20-year-old was diagnosed with cleidocranial dysostosis at birth, a condition she regards as invisible. The rare genetic disorder, which affects one in a million people, causes abnormal underdevelopment of bones, skull and teeth. Hence, Magdalene often gets asked: “Why are you so short?” and “How come you can be excused from PE lessons?”.

These questions and comments have often been dismissed as passing remarks, but for Marcus and Magdalene, who are both Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Scholarship recipients, these “passing remarks” constantly remind them of their disabilities and how they are different.

The Scars of Childhood Taunt

The lack of support from peers and teachers had compounded Marcus’ sense of isolation. “As a child, I didn’t have the courage to stand up for myself and bringing it up to my teachers didn’t help as they’d tell me not to take their words to heart,” said Marcus.

Over time, Marcus chose not to confront those who made him uncomfortable with their jokes. He would even resort to making light of his own disability. On the other hand, Magdalene took the negative remarks more personally as she did not know how to react to them most of the time. This took a toll on her self-esteem and made her more conscious of her differences.

Finding their Identities in Society

Image credit: zoraaax6

Content creator and model, Fathima Zohra, has appeared on magazine covers and runways. Even with these successes, Zohra, who is also an SPD Inclusion Champion, still receives unkind remarks from strangers. The 27-year-old recalled an incident where a stranger assumed that her brother is her husband. When the lady found out that he is her brother, she pitied Zohra, as she believed that Zohra would never get the chance to get married and have children. Zohra was taken aback by her remarks.

Empowerment through Advocacy

“I came to realise that it shouldn’t be ok to make fun of your own disability because it undermines your self-worth and allows other individuals to assert control over your emotions. So nowadays when I’m in a situation where I feel uncomfortable with comments about my disability, I’d speak up. Because I realised that sometimes people continue to make fun of your disabilities because they think that you’re fine and comfortable with it. So over time, they tend to make those jokes not putting much thought into it,” said Marcus, another SPD Inclusion Champion.

“Speaking up against others is one of the most important things you could do to have control over how you feel over your own disability,” he added. While children may be curious, the responsibility then falls on their parents to become advocates and play their part by explaining to their child that pointing out certain conditions publicly or making insensitive comments can be hurtful.

Zohra hopes that people with disabilities would receive the same respect as others. “I hope we can all be more mindful and also respect boundaries,” she said.

This sentiment is also shared by Magdalene. “It’d be great if everyone can be more sensitive with their words and be kind with their words! Everyone has their fair share of struggles, and a little bit of kindness can go a long way in another person’s life,” said Magdalene.

In a world where words wield immense power, the anecdotes shared by Marcus, Zora and Magdalene are poignant reminders of the profound impact of thoughtless speech. By fostering empathy, understanding and education, we can strive to create a world where every individual is seen, heard, and valued for who they are, free from the weight of casual and careless remarks.