As the mother of a child with Down syndrome casual conversation has become a minefield of R-bombs. Suddenly you are going along, having a nice conversation with someone. Someone who knows you, maybe a friend. Maybe someone who knows your son has Down syndrome. And then out of nowhere… “that’s retarded.” And it hits like a punch to the gut. A flood of emotions follows. How could they say that? Surely they don’t know what they just said. They must not because they just kept going on with their point like it was nothing. They just weren’t thinking. They’ve met Owen. They love him. Do I say something? I don’t want to make them feel bad. But I can’t just let that slide. I have to stand up for my son. Why did they have to use that word? They just weren’t thinking…
Today is Spread the Word to End the Word awareness day. The word “retard”, “retarded”, and any word constructed with suffix “-tard” is hate speech. Maybe you don’t go around calling people intellectual disabilities “retards”, but maybe your phone didn’t work right today and you called it “retarded.” Maybe someone at work messed something up and created more work for you and you called them “retarded.” Maybe you have created a lipstick line and thought it would be fun to call one of shades “celebutard.” I hate to break it to you, but it is still hate speech. Maybe as you read this you are thinking, “It’s just a word. I don’t really think people with disabilities are messed up.” But when you use this word this way, that is exactly what you are saying and that is exactly how you are using it. You are saying that this thing or person you are describing as “retarded” is messed up and and broken, like my son is messed up and broken, and that is really hurtful. Especially because it’s untrue. None of these words have ever been used to describe my son by people that have met him. Beautiful. Sweet. Precious. Perfect. I have heard all of these to describe Owen. But certainly not messed up, broken, and definitely not “retarded.”
It’s hard to swallow, I know. I am not proud to say I have been guilty of using this word in the past carelessly. I know you may not say it with malice in your heart. You may not be thinking about the implications of using this word pejoratively when it comes out of your mouth. I am sure that when you say it, people with intellectual disabilities are the last thing on your mind. But when it just pops out of your mouth, and you happen to be within earshot of someone who has or loves someone who has an intellectual disability, it is all they can think about. It is hurtful. I am not being a hypersensitive member of the PC police when I say this. There is a broad spectrum of opinions on many topics in the special needs community, and we are all on the same page with this one. This word has got to go.
I could go on, but here are some much more eloquent thoughts on the topic. A good friend shared beautifully written Huffington Post article by John C. McGinley on my husband’s facebook wall last night:
This was my husband’s beautiful response:
I’m not exaggerating at all when I say I hear it almost daily. And every time I hear it, my face gets hot, and I look for an excuse to walk away… the only exception is a certain friend who says it maybe once every two weeks, and immediately apologizes and feels bad, because I know he’s trying, and that actually ends up being a net positive I think.
I was thinking about it after reading this, and it makes me upset, of course because it marginalizes Owen, and of course because it reminds me that he’s at best a non-thought to some people, and at worst an object of ridicule.
But the main reason I think it upsets me, the main reason it goes through my head sometimes and I fixate on it for minutes at a time, is because it reminds me that I didn’t care until it was my boy. I didn’t love Owen before he was mine. I was just like those others, and I wasn’t good enough to care about it until I was in it. And I’m so ashamed of that. I really am. I’ll never again in my life have the chance to be good selflessly, for the sake of a stranger. For the sake of being good. Not about this.
That’s my confession as someone who used and abused the R-word, and other words as a self-centered jerk, and also my plea to others as a new and still learning advocate… if you won’t pepper your language with love, and extract the corrosive language, for my boy Owen, who is depending on us to make a good world for him, as people who get to have influence, then do it so you won’t be a hypocrite, when an Owen comes into your world, because one will. And you want to be able to feel good, and not have to think back on memories of who you were when Owens didn’t matter.
It’s been past time to get this off my chest.
I’m not above making an emotional appeal. Seriously look at this face:
The next time your day takes a wrong turn and you are tempted to use the R-word, think about this face. I guarantee whatever went wrong, has nothing to do with this face. But I bet thinking about it will put a smile on yours.