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.
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?