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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

An Open Letter

An open letter to those who use the words retard(ed) in casual, every day conversation.

As the parent of a child who has an intellectual disability I have to, I need to, be my child's voice - until she can speak for herself. And even then I will continue to advocate on her behalf.

The problem is I haven't been very good at it. At least not the part where I confront other people about their language. I still struggle with that. I don't like confrontation. I don't like controversies. I don't like drawing attention to myself. I don't like uncomfortable situations. Yet I need to start speaking up, louder, and finding my voice.

What I'm struggling with in finding my voice is bringing to someones attention when they use the r-word: Retarded or Retard in the slang way it's become common and acceptable to do now. 

The encounter usually happens with someone I don't know that well, someone I just met, someone I only see in a social situation once or twice a month. It's usually in a conversation taking place within a group. And then someone casually throws out, "Yeah my husband does x,y,z cause he's retarded like that."

I'm usually shocked by some of the people and places that I hear it being used. I didn't expect to hear it from a professional, from the military spouse of so-and-so, in the workplace between employee and client, from someone who knows Kayla, and on and on. I just didn't expect you to use such an ugly-sounding, derogatory, offensive word  - especially when the English language is so full of many other adjectives and verbs and nouns. Can't you find another, more appropriate, word to use instead?Is it really that hard?

What I want to say is:
"Actually, no, your husband is not retarded for doing x,y,z."
"No, that movie is not retarded because you didn't like it."
"No, those shoes are not retarded because you don't like the style."
"No, you are not retarded because you spilled coffee on yourself."
"No, that rule is not retarded just because it doesn't seem to make any sense to you."
"No, you're not retarded because you over-reacted to something."
"No, he is not retarded just because he did something that was silly, foolish, or childish."
"No, really, you're not retarded because you tripped over the curb."
"No, the server is not retarded because he didn't get your order right."
"No, that equipment is not retarded, it's just malfunctioning/not working right."

I also want to say, "Please change the word. Find a different word to use for that situation you are describing. It really hurts me to hear you use it that way ... I have a daughter with an intellectual disability."

Instead I groan inwardly and think to myself, oh no, you use that word? I feel a wall go up. How do I stop the conversation and change the topic completely? Usually there isn't a chance to pull the person aside and talk privately. So instead of making the whole group feel uncomfortable, I'm just the only one that is uncomfortable. I'm also afraid that if I bring up why that word bothers me then I'll get looks of pity because I have a child with Down syndrome...and I definitely don't want your pity.

Yes, I know, you weren't referring to my child. You didn't mean it in that way. It wasn't actually being used about someone who has been diagnosed with mental retardation*.

But in a roundabout way you did. Because what did that word originally mean?

Dictionary.com defines the word retard(ed) as:
1. To make slow; delay the development of or progress of (an action, process etc); hinder, impede.
2. To be delayed.
The origin of the word is Latin and means, again, to delay, protract, to loiter, be slow.

That's it. To be delayed. Which became a medical diagnosis for people who were delayed, or slow in their development.

But then it shows this:
Slang, disparaging
a. A mentally retarded person
b. A person who is stupid, obtuse, or ineffective in some way.

Slang dictionary for retard:
A rude nickname for a retarded person (derogatory and unkind.)

Urban Dictionary's thesaurus for retarded shows these words: stupid, dumb, gay, annoying, crazy, ugly, drunk, ignorant, loser.

How far the word has changed from the original meaning. It has become so derogatory that Rosa's Law was passed. *This law changes the use of the terms 'mental retardation/mentally retarded' from federal health, education and policy, to 'intellectual disability and individual with an intellectual disability.'

Please stop and think about how the word retard(ed) sounds when it's used in every day conversation. Use another word. Take your pick: ridiculous, silly, doesn't make sense, klutz, accident, made a mistake. Use crazy, ugly, drunk, ignorant, loser if it fits - but don't use retarded in their place, because it shouldn't be a catch-all word for all those negative words.

Because my daughter, my beautiful, full-of-life, strong-willed, determined, amazing, capable, beautiful daughter ... is slow. She is delayed in her learning. She is delayed in her cognitive thinking skills. If she were born years ago she would have been slapped with the label of being mentally retarded.

Take the pledge to eliminate the derogatory use of the 'r-word' in every day speech and promote inclusion and acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities.

It's not about being politically correct, or free speech, it's about doing the right thing. It's about respect. It's about using the appropriate word in the situation.

And it's about my daughter. And all the other people who have intellectual disabilities.

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lovemy3 said...

I'm a lot like you...I don't like confrontation. I generally try to change the subject and inside I cringe. Do you mind if I link to your page on fb?

Nan said...

Bravo. Soon Kayla will be able to speak out . . . and sometimes helping develop the words for ourselves helps us then teach our children. Jess is much better at this now than I am, see what she wrote here http://dsbutterfly.blogspot.com/2012/03/new-r-word-respect.html

Also, an organization we know had business cards printed up that we now use (and give me easy words). These can be found at VITA (Toronto Canada) This is a big pdf, but meant to be printed on business-sized cards: http://www.vitacls.org/vita/vita/pdf/Words_Hit_Card.pdf

Stephanie said...

I could have written this.This is exactly how I react and how I feel. i'm sharing this ok???
i'm crying too!

D said...

Ugh yes... such a difficult thing to address. Recently I heard the woman who runs religous education at my church say it... I double cringed! When I have confronted people I am countered with "but I don't mean it like that, I have no bad intent when I say it". I understand that is usually true but it hurts just as much for those of us it matters to.

ChupieandJ'smama (Janeen) said...

So well put! Keep spreading the information Michelle. Most people just don't realize what they are actually saying. It's important to let them know.
Someone left a comment on my Facebook the other day using the "R" word and the "F" word. I was actually more offended by the "R" word. I couldn't get that comment down fast enough. Then I sent a message explaining why it was unacceptable.
You're a wonderful advocate for your daughter and the DS community as a whole!

Twilson9608 said...

I don't like confrontation at all especially with people who I care about and who I know mean well but if things don't get addressed people live in their ignorances even if they are innocent. This was great. I love all of your photos btw. You have a beautiful family and your daughter is absolutely stunning!

Anonymous said...

Wow sweetie. you always say you don't write the best but, this letter, this work of advocacy is absolutely wonderful! Love you, Joe.

Anonymous said...

Sing it out sista..... xo

Anonymous said...


Angie Willey said...

Very well said. Thanks for putting my thoughts into words! I too have let it slide. Next time I hope I have the courage to speak up.

Overwhelmed! said...

Oh Michelle, you write so beautifully, especially when it pertains to Kayla. I'm very proud of the way you advocate for your daughter, even if you feel you don't speak out enough when these uncomfortable situations arise.

Keep it up, my friend!

Anonymous said...

Every blogger needs an oddball comment periodically, yes? So here I am to be your obligitory off-the-waller:

I grew up in a musical family, and my first exposure to the word "retarded" was to the musical term "ritardando", which means to "slow down gradually" in music lingo. (The "i" is pronounced "ih" instead of "ee".) Many music texts abbreviate it "rit", and 30 years ago, many abbreviated it "ritard", although you don't see that so much anymore. (No doubt due to teacher fatigue from juvinile humor.)

The first time I heard the term used at school, I couldn't figure out why on earth someone was calling someone else a "ritard". That was a musical term! And they were running, not walking... ???

Now, as a piano teacher, when I'm introducing a student to the concept, they often bring up the "retard" label from school... and I tell them that while they are allowed to refer to their music as "having a ritard or rit" or as "ritarding" (because 'ritardandoing' is not only too long, but grammatically innacurate anyway), they are NOT allowed to use the word on a person.

->End obligatory outlandish comment.<-


Anonymous said...

Michelle, you are a truly beautiful person with a beautiful daughter!! your letter says it all!!
bette Midler sings a song and , I think, some of the songs is " you are the wind beneath my wings" You are the wind beneath Kayla. :)love MOM

ckbrylliant said...

wonderful perspective. I don't think confrontation is always the best educational tool. And that is what we want....to educate, to get people to change or to see. Just like yelling at our kids never works, yelling at or saying something demeaning to a person who uses Retard/retarded will do little to change their behavior. We too struggle with how to handle the situation.

One of my only real worries about having a daughter with DS is the day my older daughter comes home and has had an encounter with the word. I pray for wisdom.

The VW's said...

Great job! Great post! Hopefully your words will resonate with many! It's hard to speak up sometimes, but you did a wonderful job of it here!

Laura P said...

great post and very well stated.

sharing on fb and twitter to get the word out.

little-miss-sunshine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
little-miss-sunshine said...

Your daughter has the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. They are striking.

You are not ready to confront yet, but you will be. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...

Sully said...

Recently, I was at the pediatrician with my son. The nurse and doctor were in the room with us and the nurse called something retarded. My son and I had a conversation about the word retarded and how it shouldn't be used in front of them. I bet that nurse was in trouble after I left, but I try to teach my children the right thing. I cannot have professionals teaching them the opposite.

Psychojenic said...

It's hard to confront. Most of the time however, it's the right thing to do.

Beth @ Hope And Coffee said...

I was at the grocery store, in the checkout lane with a package of tortillas. They usually fall out of the package since they are so heavy, and the cashier and I were talking about that. Then she says, "It's so retarded!"

I angrily took my receipt and left, when I should have said "No, these tortillas are not retarded for falling out of the package. You are disrespectful."

But I didn't. Now I avoid that cashier at the store. I won't anymore though, I will have the courage to stand up for my daughter, for Kayla + all the kids/individuals who can't defend themselves (yet).

Thank you Michelle!

Anonymous said...

All human beings regardless of intellect have feeling and aspirations: negative words like the "r" word diminish our quality of life while positive words enhance it.

Our English language is rich in positive words; failure to use them when we can says something negative about us. When tempted to say something negative, try to remember how you felt when hurting words were spoken to you. Thanks for your original post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject.