07 August, 2012

Through The Looking-Glass

I am often reminded how much I value words and how much I enjoy seeing and hearing them used well. So today I find myself thinking about words – the ways they embrace us and the ways we use them to embrace our world.

It’s true; I do love words. I love language. In my mind it is the crowning intellectual achievement of humankind. Just try thinking without using words. Never again in our lifetimes will we achieve anything as complex and profound as our ability to share what is essentially an infinity of shades of meaning. Furthermore we are able to do this in a novel fashion each time – even if we wish to express exactly the same message. It is a unique gift although a good friend reminds me that there are many ways to communicate the experiences we share. Some use words, and some do not.

Language is also a gift most of us develop with minimal effort. No one teaches us that plurals can be created by adding an “s.” No one teaches us that adding “-ed” to verbs will usually result in the past tense. We simply abstract those rules of grammar by listening to those around us. Young children often say “foots” or “goed” instead of “feet” or “went.” They didn’t hear those words; they just figured it out. That’s remarkable! Of course, they have to learn later that there are exceptions to many of the rules.

I love that I can select from among a million words, that I can play with the order of those words, and that I can ignore or embrace grammatical convention as I wish. What I find truly amazing is that I can further nuance my meaning by choosing what not to say – in the same way visual artists use negative space as a key element of composition, regardless of their medium. And how wonderful it is that my expressions actually have moods!

Unfortunately with language sophistication so central to our human-ness, there is an unpleasant reality: we are likely to be judged throughout life by our ability to communicate or by the way we communicate in spite of the fact that we are only just beginning to document the diversity of the ways in which people communicate.

In our ignorance of that, we are quick to judge people and make unfounded assumptions about the intellects of those who use language differently, use a different grammar, or use different forms of communication. Learning not to do so is perhaps the most difficult learning of all because it requires patience and an understanding of their language and perhaps their culture too.

Those are far rarer skills, but there are some who are beginning to teach us. Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette, for example, are two middle-aged men with autism, and they are travelling the world determined to put a new face on autism. "With limited speech, they both faced lives of social isolation in mental institutions or adult disability centers. When they learned as adults to communicate by typing, their lives changed dramatically." In Wretches & Jabberers they document some of their journey to change attitudes - especially attitudes concerning disability and intelligence.

In their film and in person, they share their humor, humility, warmth, and intelligence. In the past far too many of us would have never given ourselves the chance to get to know them as the remarkable individuals they are. Today their tour continues as they promote the film and extend their efforts to teach us that there are many ways to communicate if we are only willing to listen.

Get to know them. Embrace difference. Their message will change you and how you think about communication. And for the better. In spite of the joy I experience when anyone uses "my" language deftly or gracefully or soaringly, I must admit it is but one style of communication, and there are many. As long as I can connect and share experiences with a fellow traveller on life's journey, nothing else really matters.