Imagine being born with a characteristic over which you had no control: big feet, red hair, brown eyes. Maybe you were born with one of these traits, or perhaps you have a child or family member who has one or all of these. Now imagine hearing, on a regular basis, others use an offensive term based off one of those traits to ridicule someone else. NOW imagine hearing other people defend their right to use such an awful term, and even go so far as telling you that you are being oversensitive to the word’s usage.
Welcome to my world.
My oldest son was born over eight years ago with Down syndrome. Every day, I have to hear or see some reference to the word “retard”. Today, Special Olympics and Best Buddies are hosting their annual campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word, to raise awareness of the hurt the “r-word” brings to individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Obviously, I am a huge supporter of this campaign; all it takes is one glance at my Facebook page to see that. It goes beyond this one day, though. I have made it a personal mission to spread awareness about the use of the “r-word”, and the attitudes that surround it.
I won’t pretend that I’m innocent and have never used this word, either in an attempt to be funny (calling someone a “retard” if they do something senseless) or to express discontent (“That store’s return policy is so retarded!”). It’s not something I’m proud of; in fact, my face still burns bright red when I think of how thoughtlessly I threw that word around in my youth. I sincerely wish that someone had called me out on it. Would it have been awkward? Sure. Embarrassing? Absolutely! But, I would have walked away having learned an important lesson: words hurt, even when said with absolutely no intention to offend someone.
The birth of my son quickly taught me that lesson. There I was, a first time mom, meeting her son and hearing the doctor say “There is no easy way to say this: your son is retarded.” Whoa, whoa, WHOA! I was all kinds of drugged, having just had a c-section, but I can still remember the hot flash of anger I felt when I heard that word. That doctor had no right to make that announcement to us, in that manner, and I hope that someone has expressed that to him by now.
Unfortunately, that was just the first of countless times I’ve heard that word and felt that anger. Some people have told me that it’s ok to use the word because it’s still used in a “clinical setting”. Not only do we need to change that, but since I spend very little time in a clinical setting talking with people, that’s not an excuse. I’ve also heard people say that it’s their constitutional right to use whatever language they choose. True, it is. But it’s also my constitutional right to respond to your choices, and you can bet I’ll call you out on it. Some people are like I was, and just don’t realize how powerful our words are, and the effect they can have on people when you don’t even mean it. Whatever the reason, it’s time to make a change.
It all comes down to respect, and being kind and considerate to others. Any parent, sibling, or friend wants their loved ones to be accepted and included. If you didn’t realize until now that the r-word is offensive, that’s fine; start today and make a conscious decision to stop using this word. Go to www.r-word.org and take the pledge. Call your family and friends out on it if you hear them say it. It doesn’t have to be a big confrontation; simply start out by saying “I think you would want to know that your choice of words is offensive…”, then explain why. Throughout history, derogatory language has labeled individuals who were somehow different, and those terms did not go away without a fight. Help us fight this by bringing awareness to everyone so that individuals affected by this word can get the respect they deserve.
Spread the word to end the word. Not just today, but everyday. When we respect everyone and care about how our actions affect others, we not only improve the world we live in, but we improve ourselves too.