I know you’ve been getting hassled a lot lately for your use of “retarded” and “retard” in your political rants on Twitter. Everyone seems to have their panties all in a bunch over it. People are so sensitive!
Anyway, I’m actually writing to thank you – not only for using the words in the first place, but for using them repeatedly, and for refusing to apologize for it while looking America straight in the eyes. See, if you had just said it the one time, and then copped to how offensive it was and apologized for it like people were harassing you to do, the whole thing would have died a quick death. It wouldn’t have been anything more than a blip on the radar, soon forgotten. The way you handled it, though – refusing to apologize, using the same words again, and then defending your use of the words? Fucking brilliant. Because by doing so, you’ve actually done all of us in the disabilities community – people with disabilities themselves, parents of children with disabilities, and advocates – a giant favor. What you’ve done is lent your
notoriety celebrity to our cause, putting it on a national stage. People all over the country are talking about it, whether left- or right-leaning. It’s all over Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and news sources big and small. The conversation we’ve been trying to have for so long about respect and compassion has expanded exponentially thanks to your mouth you.
It doesn’t even matter that you don’t agree with what we have to say; the point is that you have almost effortlessly raised awareness to a level it’s never reached before. Free advertising of a worthy cause on a huge scale! The vast majority of people finally get it – they get how words can hurt, demean, demoralize, marginalize, and oppress. And most people, once they become aware, don’t want to be vehicles of that kind of divisiveness and unkindness. So, seriously, it’s totally okay if you want to stick to your principles – that’s cool. You’ve managed to educate an entire population, though – that’s the main thing.
Ann Coulter’s been at it again, and the online Down syndrome community is in an uproar again. The latest from Coulter:
There are so many things I could respond with – and as Finn’s mom, I feel a responsibility to: how “retard” is never appropriately used, how it’s always a demeaning slur; how hurtful it is to use language that puts down an entire class of people; how continuing to use such language makes one a bully. I could go on.
But Coulter knows these things. Of course she does, because she’s been called out before. And she doesn’t care. She makes her living at being as controversial as possible. She has built her image on being nasty, self-righteous, and offensive – all under the guise of being above it all. She thrives on attention, even – maybe especially – negative attention. If she’s taken to task on something offensive she’s said, like an obnoxious, bratty child, she just sticks her tongue out and repeats the offending words just to prove that she can.
It makes me tired, and I can’t bring myself to jump into the fray, the call to arms to bring her down. It’s futile. She won’t stop, she just won’t. Neither will she take it back or apologize. She gets off on this shit way too much. She is quoted as having once said, “I’m a Christian first and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second, and don’t you ever forget it.” If you tell her she’s being hurtful, well, it’s “Mission Accomplished” to her. And sadly, wherever she goes, it’s likely that she’ll find an audience. It seems to me, therefore, that the best thing to do is to ignore her.
I can’t advocate on such a large scale. I’m one person, a humble mom of a kid with Down syndrome. Celebrities aren’t going to listen to me. But maybe you will.
Of all the aspects of advocating for people with Down syndrome, trying to educate people about the R-word and how it affects those of us in the disabilities community is maybe the most disheartening. You can tell people it’s a hurtful choice of words, you can explain why it is, and there always seem to be those folks who invoke Freedom of Speech, or the silliness of insisting on political correctness. They’ll argue the point with you, they’ll say they “didn’t mean anything by it,” or they “didn’t mean it like that.” You can tell them that, just like there is no appropriate way to use the word “nigger,” there is also no appropriate way to use the word “retard,” and that using it – especially after they’ve been educated about its implications – is making a conscious choice to demonstrate utter disregard for certain fellow human beings. You can tell them that using words like “retarded” and “retard” to describe people or things they find sub par is actually pretty uncreative on their part, given that there are dozens of other words to choose from in the modern lexicon that express what they want to express without degrading an entire sector of society. You can tell them that using such language actually reflects their own ignorance – the very thing they’re using such words to decry. You can tell them that being mean is unChristian.
Doesn’t matter. It all often falls on deaf ears. I’m not really sure what’s at the heart of it. Selfishness? Are people that afraid of feeling like they’re giving up a right that it trumps being a kind and compassionate human being? It’s hard to believe that people actually want to be thought of as mean (except, obviously, Ann Coulter). Do they? Or is it a form of “talking big,” trying to be cool, a big shot? Whatever it is, it’s discouraging, to say the least.
Most of my friends have become conscious of the R-word, and many have pledged to stop using it. Some of them even go out of their way to call it to other people’s attention, and for that I’m grateful. Some still let it slip sometimes, though, right in front of me. Sometimes I say something, and sometimes I don’t. Even when I don’t, though, I notice. Oh yes, I notice. If I don’t say anything, you should know it’s because I value our relationship and want to give you the benefit of the doubt – I want to believe that you caught yourself saying it and are inwardly at least a little horrified. Or, I just can’t stomach a confrontation in which you might become defensive and invoke all the tired old excuses and explanations I’ve heard a thousand times before. Maybe when I hear you let it slip, I’m momentarily overcome by a feeling of defeat.
I’m not asking for the moon, for crap’s sake. I’m asking people to think before they speak. As fellow members of the human race, shouldn’t we all have a policy of “first, do no harm”? While we all value our freedoms, do we interpret “freedom” to mean “free-for-all”? Don’t we believe, instead, as a civilized society, that freedoms come with responsibility – responsibility to be humane and compassionate?
Listen: I know Ann Coulter isn’t going to stop her vitriol. But maybe next time she spews ugliness, just a few more people will see it for what it is: begging for attention at the cost of other people’s feelings – at other people’s right to be treated with dignity and respect.
I never thought much about disabilities beyond feeling sorry for the disabled and their families. I would see a family pushing an obviously handicapped child in a wheelchair and would think to myself, “What a shame to have to live that kind of life.” Or, I would think, “How sad for that family to have to deal with being caregivers for the rest of their lives.” I thought I was being empathetic and sensitive as my mother (certain irony here but that is for another discussion) taught me to be. “Don’t stare,” she would say. “Those people can’t help the way they are. Just be grateful that you are healthy.”
So I grew up and raised my own children with the same set of values. I became a teacher and was sure that I was treating people with disabilities fairly and justly like I had been raised to do. My life had never really been touched by this kind of “horror.” I had “normal” children and grandchildren. My life was fulfilled and I didn’t have to deal with “taking care of someone for the rest of my life.”
Enter the Morguess family. Joey was the first in a long line of Morguesses that would cross the threshold of my first grade classroom. The year he was in my class was the year Finn was born and the family received “the devastating diagnosis” of Down syndrome. I didn’t know Lisa at the time. I just knew she came to pick Joey up from school with a set of twins and their younger sister and an infant secured tightly in a baby sling.
Well, being the baby lover that I am, it did not take long for me to step outside and request a viewing of the package in the sling. I was taken aback. What I saw was a beautiful child but I quickly realized that all was not “normal.” I could tell by his eyes that he probably had Down’s. I just made some generic isn’t he cute comment and moved on, not knowing what else to say. I obviously couldn’t ask if something was “wrong” with the baby because my mother taught me that it was rude to ask. So I kept my mouth shut and silently felt great sadness that this lovely family of “normal” children was now saddled, “for the rest of their lives,” with this disabled child. This was also the year that Michael was diagnosed and treated for stage 3 colon cancer. That story, too, is for another time.
A couple of years later I had Annabelle and Daisy in my class. This is when I became close friends with Lisa. I had been reading her blog over the years, and discovered that she and I had so much in common. We both had rough childhoods with mothers that never should have had children, we were both voracious readers; she invited me to join her book club, and we both adored her children. So now I was on the inside of this family that was so unfortunate to have a handicapped child.
This is what I have learned from having the privilege of being an “insider.” I knew absolutely NOTHING about having a child with a disability. I was embarrassed at how ignorant I was about the subject. I love Lisa’s blog and read it faithfully so I was already learning quite a bit about the real issues involved with raising a child with a disability from all of her blog posts. But the one who really dispelled all of the myths I believed about Down syndrome was Finnian Hendrix Morguess, himself. He is a bright, energetic boy. He is “normal” for him. It is like watching a child develop in slow motion. He meets the milestones but not at the same time as a “typical” child. It is utterly ridiculous to feel sorry for the family. They certainly don’t feel sorry for themselves. Finn is an active, wonderfully adventurous toddler. What is “normal” anyway? Finn is Finn. He is not Down syndrome, he is not a disability, and he definitely is not a burden. He is a son, a brother, a student, and a child who happens to sport an extra chromosome.
As I learned more about the myths of having a family member that is not typical, I began to see that the biggest concern of the family is that others would not see Finn for who he is but instead would see only him as different. Kevin began his assault on the “R” word at the junior high level and I found myself wanting, no needing, to fight this battle as a teacher. Lisa gave me the movie Deedah, which I now show every year in my classroom. Along with the movie, I read the book, Junkyard Wonders, by Patricia Polloco. We have long, long discussions about embracing people’s differences and celebrating every life as necessary and important. The “R” word is a hurtful slur that should never be uttered.
I ended up having the twins for 2 years and now I have Lilah. With any luck, Finn is next!
The point I want to get across to my students is that everyone is different in one way or another. Finn is a person first. All the rest is just what we, as a society, make of it. I love you Morguess family. Thanks for letting me in!
~ Caryl Phillips
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?
This morning Kevin texted me from school saying that he had had a run-in with someone about the use of the word “retarded.” That someone was Kevin’s favorite teacher.
I don’t know why, but it still blows me away how prevalent the use of such language is even among teachers – educated grown-ups who are supposed to be role models, who it would seem should be sensitive to this kind of thing merely by virtue of being exposed daily to diverse populations.
It’s always disheartening to hear this slur thrown around, but even more so when it comes from the mouth of someone you look up to, so when Kevin told me this, my heart hurt for him because I know how much he admires this particular teacher.
But this incident had a positive outcome, as Kevin told me later when he got home from school. And in order to share it with all of you, he put it to paper as well:
So, I was in English class today, and we’re reading Macbeth and discussing all this stuff about… uh… whatever it is that Shakespeare meant to be discussed one day.
And we’re interpreting… something. Yeah.
And Mr. *any similarities to persons living or dead is not entirely coincidental* (aka my favorite teacher) calls on So-and-So to interpret the something.
“Oh… I don’t know,” she stammers.
“Come on!” Mr. ———- laughs. “We just discussed this! You’re not retarded!”
(Something along those lines… this conversation has been adapted from my “not-perfect” memory.)
Laughing ensues, some protesting (not at the use of the word, I think, but to the alleged insult.)
Mr. ———- chuckles, and says, “Well I’m not calling her retarded, I said she isn’t.”
“Okay, I’m sorry for alleging to your retardedness.”
I stayed silent.
Well, I would be silent anyway, becauthe I had my retainer in and I thound rethiculouth wearing it.
But I was silent, mulling over what had just been said.
Mr. ———- should know perfectly well what he just said. Our first required novel of the year was Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, a story about two grown men trying to make a living during the Great Depression, one of them developmentally disabled. Furthermore, one of our vocabulary terms way early in the year had been “derogatory,” and he had spent some time going over that particular term, using his own Italian heritage as an example.
So he definitely knew what it meant, and had disregarded it. For what reasons? Just slipped out, maybe? An attempt at humor on a teenage level? (like Mr. Jafari?)
Whatever the reason, this man who I looked up to (and still do, as you’ll see), just lost a lot of respect from a certain student.
I made up my mind right then to say something to him.
The remaining minutes of class flew by, and finally Mr. ———– ended the lesson, leaving us some five minutes of free time before the bell.
I chatted with a friend, and when the bell rang, I stayed behind until everyone had cleared out.
I walked up to him (quite nervously).
Casually, I said, “Hey, Mr. I…” (commonly called by one initial, his last name is a bit lengthy.)
“Yes?” he said in his always-friendly tone. “Something to ask me?”
“No, actually, something to tell you.”
His face held a funny surprised look, and I laughed in spite of myself.
“What is it?” he inquired.
“I hope I’m not going to get in trouble for this…” I murmured, and then spoke up, forcing myself to not beat around the bush.
“The thing is, you’re probably my favorite teacher. But today… I’m sorry to say, I lost a lot of respect for you.”
He gave a rueful smile. “It was me saying ‘retarded’, wasn’t it?”
“Well, yes.” I said.
I don’t remember the exact words from this point, but I told him how as a teacher, as an adult, just as a human being, he should know better. He knew exactly what I meant, and he didn’t deny it or make excuses. I explained how it offended certain people, and as a human being, that type of language should be avoided anyway. I told him that I have a brother with Down syndrome, and he understood. And he told me I definitely wasn’t in trouble. And he then did two things that restored my respect for him.
First, he promised an apology to the entire class tomorrow.
Second, he gave me a genuine “thank-you.”
We smiled at each other.
I stuck out my hand.
He shook it.
That Kevin, he’s quite a kid, isn’t he?
Following is a speech our oldest son Kevin gave to his student body and their families about a year and a half ago. Many of you have already seen it, but it’s worth hearing his message again.
Kevin remains a steadfast advocate even now. He’s taken on this role all on his own. We’ve never pressured him to vocally take a stand; we’ve only tried to instill in all of our kids compassion, tolerance, and kindness to people from all walks of life.
Kevin started high school this year – a new school, a vastly larger campus and student body than what he had come from in middle school – automatically putting him on precarious social ground. And yet, he still speaks out. During the first couple weeks of school a guy at school called something “retarded,” and Kevin calmly told him why it’s unkind and unacceptable. The other kid was actually very receptive.
Being a teenager is already so fraught with difficulties, trying to fit in, trying to figure out just where your place in the world might be. To take on such a potentially unpopular cause as this takes a lot of character. I have so much admiration for him.
I originally posted this on Finnian’s Journey quite a while back. I think it’s totally worth revisiting for Down Syndrome Awareness Month. I’ve made some minor updates and revisions to the original; I hope it provides you with some chuckles and some good food for thought.
It’s always a good time for a few tips and reminders about offensive and non-offensive language (and attitudes!) concerning people with disabilities. ‘Cuz, if you wanna be my friend, ya gotta know the lingo!
~~ “Retarded” and “retard” are just plain unkind, and use of these words does not showcase the user’s intelligence, tolerance or sensitivity, nor does it make the user appear cool or superior, but only displays a desire to be superior. Especially when used in the slang, casual form, as in “That’s so retarded!” or “What a retard!” If overheard by a person touched by someone with Down syndrome or any other intellectual disability, pain and heartache will be suffered by the hearer. Is causing such hurt something you want to live with? It’s true that my son is what has in the past been clinically known as mentally retarded. I prefer to think of it as a learning disability. IQ measures one’s ability to learn; it does not measure their worth as a person or their right to respect and dignity.
~~ My son is not “Downs,” he is not “Down syndrome,” and he is not “a Downs kid” or a “Down syndrome kid.” Finn has Down syndrome. Down syndrome is not his primary identifying characteristic, and it is but one element of his genetic makeup.
~~ By the same token, Finn is not a “special needs child.” Honestly, I’m not extremely hip to the term “special needs.” I have six kids; five of them are supposedly “typical,” and yet they all have their own quirks, idiosyncracies, strengths, weaknesses, and yes, special, unique needs. So. I guess “special needs” is a safe catch-all phrase, which is definitely more benign than “disabled” or “handicapped.” However, if one is going to use the term “special needs,” Person-First language still applies, as in “child with special needs” as opposed to “special needs child.” It’s about respect and dignity, my peeps.
~~ I’m really not a fan of the whole “special” thing anyway. I mean, each of my kids are special in his or her own way. Finn is a child who has somewhat of a wonky chromosomal makeup. He’s not any more or less a blessing to our family than any of our other kids, he’s not otherworldly, and I can assure you that he does not have wings or a halo. He’s just a kid, trying to find his place in the world, same as everyone else.
~~ There is no such thing as “mild” Down syndrome! Down syndrome is the condition in which the twenty-first chromosome is triplicated in every cell of the body. So, just like it’s impossible to be just a little bit pregnant, Down syndrome – or Trisomy 21, which is the most common form of Down syndrome, and the form which Finn has – is all or nothing. There is also no correlation whatsoever between the “mildness” or “severity” of the facial characteristics of a person with Down syndrome, for instance, and their cognitive and/or developmental abilities. Physical, developmental, and cognitive strengths and weaknesses vary widely among people with Down syndrome, the same way they vary widely in “typical” people. It is no more possible to predict the ultimate potential of a person with Down syndrome in babyhood, based on how they look or anything else, any more than it is possible to predict any person’s ultimate potential in babyhood. The fact is, however, that most people with Down syndrome are have many more strengths and abilities than most people realize.
~~ My son is not “afflicted with Down syndrome,” nor does he “suffer from Down syndrome.” Down syndrome is not a sickness or a disease, and I suspect that the most suffering he (or our family) will do relating to his having Down syndrome will be directly related to the ignorance, intolerance, and unkindness of others towards people with disabilities. Yes, Down syndrome is often associated with various health issues which can affect quality of life, but this is not always the case, and the vast majority of health issues associated with Down syndrome can now be effectively corrected or treated, greatly improving quality of life. As for Finn, he’s healthy, he’s happy, and he’s very much loved. His life is not a tragedy, nor is our life with him in it.
Moving beyond the R-word, I have to admit that there are other words that sting me personally, thanks to Finn and his extra chromosomes. That’s the thing about having a child like Finn – it changes your perspective about certain things. And I’m here to say that that’s not a bad thing.
The other words I’m talking about are words like idiot, and moron, and imbecile. More words that we casually throw around to describe what we perceive to be stupid or substandard. And like retarded, they’re all born out of what were once upon a time merely clinical terms used to describe individuals with developmental disabilities.
What I’d like to see is the elimination from our human vocabularies, in all of their varieties, of any and all slurs that in any way put down any class of people – be that cognitive ability, race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever.
That said, I fully acknowledge our need as a people for epithets, for words that emote and express frustration with life’s little stupidities. So I offer you here a list of alternative language:
(Try unbelievable with an exclamation point, and with extra emphasis on the third syllable: “UnbeLIEVable!” Very effective. Go ahead, try it. Also, “ridiculous” and “unbelievable” can be used to boost each other, as in “Ridiculously unbelievable!” or “UnbeLIEVably ridiculous!”
Nouns (Words to Describe People):
I’m sure there are more. How many alternatives can you think of? Challenge yourself to sample alteratives for a few days and see if one or two don’t end up feeling like a perfect fit for you.
Perhaps you think I’m kidding. I’m not. Although I do hope you find these lists of alternative words entertaining, I’m serious about using them to replace idiot, moron, imbecile, and yes, retard.
Come on, people. It’s really, really not too difficult to think before you speak, to exercise a little sensitivity and compassion for who your audience might be, to try to see everyone’s humanity and worth. And honestly, putting forth just that little effort will probably make you feel good.
When Finn was but a wee newborn lying on a tiny bed in the NICU recovering from surgery, a blood test confirmed what my midwife had suspected: that he had Down syndrome. I thought that empowering myself with information might be a good idea, because for the most part Down syndrome was a huge mystery to me. Really all I knew was that people with Down syndrome looked different, they usually had bad haircuts and wore bad clothes, they were prone to heart defects and maybe some other vague medical issues, and most of all, that Down syndrome was definitely something awful that nobody wanted their kid to have. Michael and I headed to Barnes & Noble to see if we could find some books on the subject (and I’ll never forget, we saw a young woman waiting in line to pay – a young woman who had Down syndrome). We ended up buying a small stack of books about Down syndrome (because why would one be enough?). One of them was Babies With Down Syndrome.
Okay, let me stop right here for just a minute. I think almost every parent who’s had a baby with Down syndrome has at least heard of this book, if not bought it or had it given to them. It says on the cover that it’s “The First Book Parents and Families Should Read.” I’m here to tell you that it’s most definitely not the first book parents and families should read. You need a fairly thick skin to make it even partway through this book. It’s full of unattractive black and white photos, statistics, and cold, hard facts about Down syndrome. And if you’re new to this, it might be easy to think that your child will look like one of those depressing photos, and that every statistic and cold, hard fact will apply to your child. And that is not the case. If you are a new parent of a child with Down syndrome, do yourself a favor and steer clear of this book. If it’s already in your possession, throw it in the trash, or at least pack it away in the attic until you are farther down the path in this whole adventure. No, really. Go do it now. I’ll wait.
So it was Babies With Down Syndrome that first informed me that my wee newborn, whom I already loved with a physical ache and felt a ferocious protectiveness of, was mentally retarded. Not only that, but sterile, as well.
This was my very first experience of having the term retarded applied to my child. To say I cried doesn’t begin to describe the gut-wrenching grief and utter terror I felt about that word. What did it mean? It conjured up all kinds of unsettling images and fears. Would he be able to function at all? Would he have emotions? Would he know his family and be able to bond with us? Would he ever be able to communicate with us and with the world in a meaningful way?
I think when you have a baby and find out that baby has Down syndrome, realizing that that means “mental retardation” is probably one of the absolute most painful aspects you have to come to terms with. There are so many factors behind this – many of the fears and questions I had are probably very common. When we set out to have a baby, we imagine certain things about that baby, and mental retardation isn’t generally one of those things.
“Retarded” has become an ugly, dirty word. It didn’t start out that way, however. It started out, many years ago, as a clinical description of a person with an intellectual disability – or, more to the point, a lower-than-average IQ.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines retarded as: “slowed or delayed in development or progress.” (It also notes that retard is “an offensive term of contempt.”)
So what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t that, in fact, accurately describe the impairments that are part of Down syndrome? Slowed. That’s exactly how I see Finn. Watching him grow and learn and develop has been very much like watching my other kids grow and learn and develop, only in slow motion. And I figure that eventually he will peak, and that peak will undoubtedly be different, probably lower, than the peaks my other kids will eventually reach. And you know what? It’s okay.
The problem is that retarded has become a slur, a common insult, an easy way to describe just about anything or anyone we find substandard. Because of this, we, parents and other people who love someone with Down syndrome (and other intellectual disabilities), are trying very hard to get everyone to move away from “retarded” and evolve into using softer, kinder terminology: developmentally delayed. Developmentally disabled. Intellectually impaired.
But it all means the same thing, doesn’t it? Slowed or delayed in development or progress.
See, personally, I don’t think I’d have a problem with “retarded” if it hadn’t become a common slur. If it had retained its clinical meaning, and only that, it would be fine. But I don’t think that changing the lingo is the answer – or at least not the whole answer – because I don’t think it’s the terminology itself that’s the problem. The problem is the attitudes that drive the language. It’s about how we view people who are different, and the fact that we so often view people who are different from us as inferior.
The solution is not to change the terminology, because it’s a losing proposition. I would be willing to bet everything I have in the world that whatever “kind” or “respectful” or “dignified” language we insist on and ultimately settle on now, will become tomorrow’s slur. Just watch – in a few years, people will be throwing around “developmentally disabled” the way they throw around “retarded” now. “What? Are you developmentally disabled or something?” Plus, eliminating “mentally retarded” from even clinical use gives it more power, more justification to use as a slur. We can no longer say “Retarded isn’t acceptable as a slur because it’s a clinical diagnosis,” because it will not longer be protected as a clinical diagnosis. You follow me? That’s exactly what happened with idiot and moron and imbecile. Those were all, once upon a time, clinical terms used to describe people with intellectual disabilities; now they are slurs that most people – even people touched by Down syndrome – don’t think twice about (personally, I cringe a little every time I hear any of those words).
I’m not crazy about the words “retarded” or “retard,” and I’m certainly not defending them. I hate them. Viscerally. Every time I hear them, it feels like a punch in the gut. And I will continue to take a stand against the use of these words as insults and slurs and descriptors of things people think are foolish or defective. But what I really want is for my son – and people of all kinds of differences – to be seen as a complex human being, with emotions, and abilities, and value, and a place in the world. Because I think if that can be accomplished, the slurs will disappear.
March 2, 2011 has been designated as this year’s official Spread The Word to End The Word Day. What “word” are we talking about? Retard(ed). Although “mentally retarded” was conceived many, many years ago as a clinical term describing people with cognitive impairments, over the years referring to anyone or anything perceived as ridiculous, silly, distasteful, or inferior as “retarded” or “a retard” has become the norm. Kids say it. Teens say it. Parents say it. Teachers say it. Attorneys say it. Politicians say it. Therapists say it. Celebrities say it. The use of this demeaning, hurtful, demoralizing verbage crosses all cultural, religious, age, and socio-economic lines. Why is it so hurtful? Because every time you call someone “a retard” or something “retarded,” you are making a direct, unflattering, and insulting comparison to him . . .
If your life is not personally touched by somebody with cognitive impairments, it may seem like a lot to ask of you to change the way you talk. But really, it’s such a small thing. Just don’t say “retard” or “retarded” anymore. Or idiot or moron or spaz either, for that matter. Such a small effort that can make such a HUGE difference to make the world a kinder place.
So, please take the pledge. Do it for Finn. Do it for people like him. Do it for my family. And while you’re at it, please spread the word and pass this along to someone you know