It’s Not Just the Words, It’s the Attitudes


I’m going to kick off Down Syndrome Awareness Month here by talking about one of the most prevalent and insidious issues concerning the Down syndrome community, and that is language.

I signed onto Facebook this morning and in my newsfeed was this from my friend Dan:

I don’t tend to post much on Facebook about Down Syndrome or disability issues. I post tons of photos and videos of Ozzie, enough to give my friends some insight into what Down Syndrome means for our family, and I don’t really delve much deeper into the subject. But this month is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and I’ve been thinking I should share something more. This morning, a friend alerted me to an offensive tweet by Ann Coulter. She posted it on Sept. 26. In it, she insinuates that Obama is pandering to the “retarded vote.” And so the stars have aligned – I have my topic. Yes, for my Down Syndrome Awareness Month post, I think I’ll have a go at that fucking bitch.*

Let’s get started by laying out two fundamental truths about the use of the word “retard”:

1. Almost every one of us is guilty of saying it at some point in our lives. Even parents of kids with special needs (although I can guarantee you that every parent of a special needs child stopped saying it when his child was born).

2. It is hurtful and it is wrong.

I know these to be truths, because I have two things that make me an expert. I have ears, and I have a child who has Down Syndrome.

Fundamental Truth #1 sucks, but for whatever reason, the word “retard” has some real staying power. I have come to realize that. I hate the word. I despise the word. But I also know that if I start WWIII every time I hear it, I’m going to miss out on some meaningful relationships with some otherwise great people. So here’s the deal – I can cut the Average Joe some slack for saying the word “retard.” To be clear, I would ask that people not say it, especially in my presence, but I know it’s something people sometimes say without really thinking about it. Disability hasn’t ever really impacted Average Joe’s life. Joe doesn’t have to go to IEP meetings. He doesn’t have to trade emails with the speech therapist. He doesn’t have to buy thousand-dollar foot orthotics or play back the phone message from the heart surgeon five times or install chain locks in his house to keep little Joe Jr. from slipping out and wandering off. Average Joe doesn’t wonder if his child will ever have a girlfriend or a job or even the ability to speak clearly one day. And so, while I detest the use of the word, I tend to give most Average Joes a pass if they slip up and use it. It’s unfortunate, but it happens and it will continue to happen and I can’t make that shitty word disappear from the entire world.

Fundamental Truth #2 sucks, too, because it just does. Some people want to argue that parents like me have thin skin, that we can’t take a joke, that we need to lighten up. I say to these people: fuck you. It is hurtful and it is wrong. If you cannot accept that simple statement, you are guilty of willful ignorance.

So now that we have established the fundamental truths, let’s get back to Ann Coulter’s Twitter post. Here’s what Ann wrote: “Been busy, but is Obama STILL talking about that video? I had no idea how crucial the retarded vote is in this election.”

Ann is not an Average Joe. Ann Coulter is a celebrity right-wing pundit. She’s the tip of the spear for the seedy underbelly of the Republican Party. She writes books and gives interviews and she does her best to piss off everyone who isn’t white and rich and straight. She falls comfortably within a group of people who should know better. This group includes people who are well educated, and people who are in positions of authority or power. These are people who have been handed the microphone or who have grabbed it for themselves. These are the people who, for whatever reason, have great influence on large groups of people. These people don’t get a free pass when they they fire off hate speech. They don’t get a free pass for tossing around “retard” like a pigskin.

Ann Coulter knows the word “retarded” is hurtful and wrong, and either doesn’t care or has deliberately chosen to use it for its shock value. To Ann, that word is just one more round of ammo – a hollow point – and she smiles as she fires it off. This isn’t the first time, either. Google it and you’ll find several instances of her calling people “retards.” I’m absolutely appalled by this woman’s behavior. And so, Ann Coulter, you fucking bitch, I would kindly ask that you leave my son and others like him out of your tirades from now on. I’m tired of people with special needs being collateral damage in your wicked war of words. For this Down Syndrome Awareness Month, you owe a lot of people a big, fat apology. I’m waiting.

*I apologize to any of my kick-ass feminist friends who take offense to the word “bitch.” It just felt so appropriate in this instance.

Let me just say that I don’t watch FOX News, I can’t stand Ann Coulter (from what I’ve seen of her in interviews on other shows), and I highly doubt she’ll apologize because I don’t think she apologizes for anything.  Didn’t she piss off Whoopie Goldberg recently for saying some outrageous things on The View about Blacks, acting as if of course she’s in a position to know what the hell she’s even talking about?  And when called on it, she just dances around it, refusing to acknowledge that she’s acting like an ass.  I think it’s part of her whole schtick, her brand if you will.  She can’t go all soft and compassionate and apologetic!  That would ruin her image.

Anyway.

It’s incredibly disheartening to realize that this is a fight we’re still fighting – the one against the R-word(s): “retarded” and “retard.”  We as a society have managed to eradicate the use of most other slurs that at one time or another were prevalent; pretty much everybody knows that fag, nigger, spic, and dyke are horribly offensive and hurtful words, and in this day and age, it would not even occur to most people to use those words.  And yet “retard” and “retarded” persist and thrive.  Why?

I think people with disabilities – and especially cognitive disabilities – represent what most of us fear most: weakness, dependence, lack of autonomy and self-direction.  Helplessness.  And the things we fear on the deepest level are things we cope with by poking fun at, dehumanizing, and marginalizing.  In this way, we put distance between ourselves and that which we fear.  It’s okay to make fun of retards!  They’re not even real people!  They don’t even know what we’re saying!  And if we can make it funny, and show that we’re the ones in control, we’re the ones calling the shots, then we don’t have to be scared of it (although, in truth, we still are).

The problem is that putting distance between ourselves and this beast we fear (disability) doesn’t guarantee that the beast won’t one day come breaking down our front door anyway – it doesn’t even improve our odds.  As a societal group, the disabled is one which any of us can join ourselves at any moment, at any point in our lives, and it’s all pretty much out of our hands.  And most of us, if we live long enough, actually will join The Disabled.  Many of us who have been known to cavalierly and even defensively throw around the word “retard” find ourselves, one day, holding our newborn infant while a geneticist tells us, “Your son has Down syndrome,” or sitting in a neurologist’s office after a battery of tests and evaluations being told, “Your daughter has autism.”  And suddenly, all the times we so thoughtlessly and even cruelly said “retard” come crashing down on our heads, and we feel a horror and a remorse so deep that we feel like we’ve broken our own hearts, and we say, ‘Never again.  Never again.”

It often takes actually coming face to face, in a very up close and personal way, with that which we fear (and therefore dehumanize and marginalize) for a real change of heart to occur – to realize, “Wow.  You know, this is kind of scary . . . but it’s not at all what I thought it was.  These are real people with real feelings and real value, and they deserve better than this.”

It’s not just about getting people to stop using offensive language – it’s about changing fundamental attitudes.  It’s about making everyone see people with Down syndrome – and, indeed, with all sorts of differences – as valuable human beings worthy of love, friendship, respect, compassion, dignity, and opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive.  The same things we are all deserving of as fellow human beings.

Think before you speak.  It could be you one day, or your not-yet-born son or daughter or brother or sister or grandchild being dehumanized and marginalized by words and attitudes.  Don’t we all want a kinder world than that?

 

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25 Comments on “It’s Not Just the Words, It’s the Attitudes”

  1. Amen!!
    October 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    Is the blog chopped off at the end !!

    Thanks for posting this and your insights–I’m praying this woman is not trying to gain 15 min of negative fame with the timing of this issue. Hoping our strength gets her attention to be human and at least not ever use (abuse) our group again

  2. Jeanie Reedy
    October 1, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    When reading your story it is clear that you aren’t an objective mom of a child with DS. It seems to me that DS Awareness Month is conveniently located right before election day. I take offense that you assume FOX News is in some way complicit in Ann Coulter’s tweet. I’m not here to defend the indefensible, but you are selective in your outrage and misguided in your “description” of Ann Coulter. Have you listened to her speak? it’s not easy on The View because she is out numbered 4 to 1. It was Whoopie who brought in the “black” comments, and she didn’t want to hear the historical facts regarding which party championed their cause. I challenge you to listen to others points of view and think about them with your head and not your heart.

    • Lisa
      October 1, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

      You’re kidding, right? This is quite possibly the most assinine response anyone could have come up with. So you think that I’m only outraged because it’s close to election day? And, what – I’m hoping to have some political pull with my blog followers by way of this post? Again, you’re kidding, right?

      Obviously you haven’t followed my blog at all. Did you just Google “Ann Coulter” and land here that way and are now expressing your own outrage? I’ve been advocating for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities – as well as advocating against the use of the slur “retard” – for FOUR fucking years now – and, let me tell you, my friend: it hasn’t been close to election day for that entire four years.

      This post wasn’t about Ann Coulter; I only used what she tweeted as an example of how ingrained and acceptable slurs against the disabled continue to be. Your response doesn’t even speak to the actual point of my post, it merely defends Ann Coulter. I’m curious, though – are you saying that you think her use of the slur “retarded” is perfectly okay?

      I don’t expect an apology from Ann Coulter, nor do I expect her to change her attitudes. She is a product of the popular media, and she’s gained fame and success that way – she has no motivation whatsoever to apologize or change. And frankly, I couldn’t give a shit less about Ann Coulter. Again, she was not the point of this post. It’s about a much bigger picture, which you clearly have missed.

      • Amen!!
        October 1, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

        What the f!!????? Yes, breast cancer is also conveniently in Oct too. I’m thrilled to be teamed up with their superbly effective marketing. Read your words, how can a MOM or a parent of someone with disabilities be unbiased?? We aren’t trying to be UN-biased. We are biased by default whether we like it or not. We are stating an opinion. We can try to express all sides at times but we are obviously biased. Politics doesn’t fucking matter, respect & human dignity do. I don’t know or care who that lady is but watch out cause we and are kids CAN vote and yes, it matters. Our opinion is big & strong. Breast cancer big soon enough I say.

    • TUC
      October 1, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

      Jeanie,

      I watch FOX. And I know how often Sean Hannity pulls out the “they say we don’t care about kids with autism and Down syndrome”, and I know how often they call for apologies to Sarah Palin over insults made about Trig. I know how many times they have insisted that the Left is made up of unapologetic hypocrites. And most of the time, I agree with them on those issues.

      Now, it is their turn to hold their own accountable. Ann Coulter is on FOX News all the time. They need to heed their own calls to action and tell her what she said was inappropriate and demeaning. She represents Conservatives and she has a platform… she needs to show some honor and do the right thing. And if necessary FOX needs to point that out to her.

      When you say that you are not here to defend the indefensible, does that mean that you agree that Ann should step up and apologize to those she has insulted and marginalized?

      (Yeah, those bleeding heart liberals conveniently made Ds Awareness Month in October, lol. You weren’t serious about that, were you?)

      • Amen!!
        October 1, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

        Our kids oops but also our friends grandparents & anyone who has ever read “Flowers for Algernon” for goodness sakes. Conservatives do not agree with using the r word and I don’t want Fox to agree; I want her & everyone else too to GET IT for their own human nature & spirit.

      • Amen!!
        October 1, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

        And yes, I want unicorns to exist too and THAT is okay also. I don’t want FOX to have to make a decision or force her hand, I want it as taboo as anything unspeakable like canibalism lets say cause human rights DO MATTER. We earn respect but certain groups do not automatically not matter or should not be viewed as the butt of the cheap joke. It’s personal for many & breeds on our insecurities & hell leads to increases in suicide if someone thinks they might be in that group. We all will be as our bodies and brains age barring medical advances with dementia that thanks to DS & Alzheimers cooperative research efforts will be eradicated or greatly minimized. You are welcome (anticipating your thanks for our Alzheimer’s gene children).

        Lisa, you should read these comments in a few months–you don’t have time for this crap

    • Michael
      October 1, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

      If it’s, as you concede, “indefensible,” then what’s wrong with being outraged? And if you’re not here to defend the indefensible, what are you here to defend? Fox News and/or Ann Coulter? Ann–the perfected Jew–is outrageous in her commentary, and not by accident. In our 24/7 content starved media, that type of stuff sells. And how would our views change if we listened to other points of view about the use of retard as a slur and think about it with our heads and not our hearts, as you suggest? Sometimes, you have to listen with your heart.

      By the way, October is also Clergy Appreciation Month and National Pork Month (look it up!) I’m pretty sure liberals did not come up with Nat’l Pork Month.

      • Amen!!
        October 2, 2012 at 1:50 am #

        Uhm, certainly not a person aware of Jewish culture (another unmentionable abomination is vividly present in most American Jewish family lines) nor would anyone practicing Judaism theology with any clue use this approach with anyone.

        Apparently is anti-bullying month too, more people just pandering for votes???!

      • Sarah
        October 3, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

        I don’t get it — how is her Judaism relevant? What does it mean to be a “perfected Jew?” If you’re going to get upset by people’s use of words — and I agree with you that the non-medical use of retard is unacceptable — then you also need to be careful with your words.

      • Lisa
        October 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

        Sarah, Ann Coulter is NOT Jewish (while my husband Michael, to whose comment you are responding, IS Jewish). Ann Coulter identifies herself as a Christian, and she believes that Jews need to be “perfected” by becoming Christian: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wnPHFSdrME . This is just one more offensive thing she’s said about a class of people she clearly looks down her nose at. It’s kind of amazing, actually, how someone as highly educated as she is can be so astonishingly ignorant.

      • Amen!!
        October 3, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

        Yes there is a line of thinking that Christianity is “Judaism improved” since the religions share (essentially) what is the Old Testament or all the PRE-Jesus stuff. Then Jesus changed everything but Christians kept the old books for history/’ reference’ although the New Testament replaces them.

        Soooo by saying perfected Jew she is not intending to insult but only say the person is Christian (apparently thus sharing her own religion). Right?

      • Amen!!
        October 3, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

        Which is kinda funny cause, in reality, people are pretty biased lol

      • Amen!!
        October 3, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

        Yes, she explains really matter-of-factly my point about the Christianity-replacing Judaism thing but she isn’t allowing for the FACT that Judaism obviously does NOT share that viewpoint. I also find it ironic that she assumes the host doesn’t practice his faith AND repeats that he has to OBEY when in fact it is the opposite. Judaism believes you have the CHANCE & opportunity to do what is good and right but you are not condemned if you do not (you ask for and receive absolution annually) but there is no hell and babies are not born in sin like Christianity v

      • Sarah
        October 3, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

        Thanks, Lisa, for explaining (happily, I know little to nothing about her, and would like to keep it that way). BTW, I “know” you from preg.org from when Lilah and my daughter were born. I can’t believe how old they are!

      • Lisa
        October 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

        🙂

    • Rachel
      October 6, 2012 at 2:27 am #

      Seriously?!? What woman could listen to Ann Coulter and have any morsel of respect for her afterwards? And BTW the mind can obviously be jaded, turn off the TV and listen to your own heart.

    • Tracey
      October 15, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

      Don’t make excuses for Ms. Coulter. And one is not required to be an Objective mother. One is required to be an advocate. That is why her son is “allowed” to go to public school and other rights that had to be litigated all the way to the US Supreme Court. . . because being “objective” and tolerating what is unacceptable gets people with disabilities no where. And she can have her opinion about Ms. Coulter. So can you. But your differing opinion doesn’t make this assessment inaccurate or misguided. You just don’t like it. And that you think DS awareness month is some liberal conspiracy to interfere with election month is bizarre and says something about you. I’m not sure what. And yes, if FOX chooses to allow hateful public comments of one of their paid employees to go without accountability, it is tacit consent. Look it up. And you might try listening with your head AND your heart. The heart is what gives people the passion and courage to step beyond what is “acceptable” and fight for what is right.

      • Tracey
        October 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

        That comment was for Jeanie, not the author. Thank you.

      • Lisa
        October 15, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

        Preach it, sister!

      • Amen!!
        October 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

        LOVE your comment, it really gets to the heart of the issue. It might just be one of the best replies to a comment ever!

        “But your differing opinion doesn’t make this assessment inaccurate or misguided. You just don’t like it. And that you think DS awareness month is some liberal conspiracy to interfere with election month is bizarre and says something about you. I’m not sure what. ”

        I love the I’m not sure what part–but will conjecture all afternoon I’m sure!

  3. Daniel Niblock
    October 1, 2012 at 10:48 pm #

    Jeanie, I challenge you to climb out of your own ass, take a deep breath and entertain the possibility that parents who are outraged over hate speech aren’t part of some twisted conspiracy to knock the wind out of your douchey presidential candidate. Trust me, he’s doing a brilliant job of that on his own. Maybe we’re just rightfully pissed that our kids somehow keep getting dragged into insults in which they should play no part whatsoever. It happens again and again, and if you’re ready to align yourself with a woman who speaks this way, then by all means let me hear your deepest thoughts on the subject. Be my guest – expand on the theme. Explain why you condone the use of the word “retard” as an insult. I’d love to watch you prance round and round this rabbit hole without falling into the abyss.

  4. mamacravings
    October 1, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post.

    I am a 5th grade teacher who hears way too many horrible name-calling events way too many times a day. I also am a sister of a special needs brother.

    The other day, one of my students called another student the r word. I tend to consider myself a pretty even-tempered and unshakable teacher, but this made me want to hit the roof.

    I handed him my cell phone and asked him to look up “mom” in my phone book. He asked why. I told him, “I want you to call her. I want you to tell her why you think that the word ‘retarded’ is okay to use. I want you to listen to the story of my twin brothers. One is off to college and has a part time job. He talks to the girl he crushes on and hopes to date her. He goes out on weekends and spends most of his off time with his best friends. The other twin is what you like to call retarded. He was the one born with a brain tumor. He spends a lot of time in a wheel chair and has had several surgeries in his life, including 2 brain surgeries. He would give anything to go to college, to have a part time job and hang out with friends on a Friday night without worrying about meds, needles and calls from the doctor….”

    It was obviously a very personal story that my kids heard that day. But it also made them think about what it actually means to be special needs and how the r word affects others. My kids don’t know much about my personal life, but they know how deeply the r word cuts in our family. It has helped them to become more aware of the power of words.

  5. Amen!!
    October 1, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    Sweet picture!!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. All you need is love, Getting over the shock of my daughter's Down syndrome | Gillian Marchenko - October 6, 2012

    […] Life as I know it, It’s not just the words, it’s the attitudes […]

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