Wednesday, March 7, 2012

There's That Word Again...

Today marks a special day of sorts.  It is not a birthday or an anniversary.  It is not a reason to break out the best glasses and pour the bubbly.  It is not the type of day where everything just seems brighter.

In a way, today is a day that I wish did not have to exist.

Today is a day of action and of awareness.  Today is 3-7-12, the day chosen to "Spread the Word to End the Word".

The word in question here, is "The R Word" or "retarded".  It is a word that means many things to so many people.  To people like my son Wyatt who have learning disabilities, it has a whole other set of meanings that you may not be aware of.

It is a word that, not surprisingly, disappeared from my vocabulary when we learned of the high probability that my unborn son had a chromosomal disorder.  It is a word that I had used, many times in my life to mean many different things, stemming all the way back to childhood.  I saw this word like any other word, in the sense that it is the individual that gave it power.  Although I had never used this word to harm one who was "less fortunate" than myself, I felt myself entitled to sling it from the hip like any other.  I used it freely, much like the cuss words that I regularly weave together for the amusement of my friends and family. 

I stopped using this word.  I stopped using this word initially out of respect for my son.  As our lives have progressed, I have realized that I stopped using it out of respect for others, for those that have gone before... and also out of respect for myself as a mother and a human being.  I have realized its true face and it is a monster.

The main issue is the continued casual use of "retarded". I understand that it may be difficult to connect the dots between bullying a "retarded kid", to calling yourself the same thing when you lose your car keys.  Or describing your dog's behaviour when he is chasing his tail.  Or any number of silly little things that may happen to you in the course of the day.  It's this use of the word "retarded" that I wish to address.

The word "retarded" did, yes, originally come from a medical context.  It is still used in places like mental health, not to describe those with a learning disability, but rather to describe a "slowing", as in the phrase "psychomotor retardation" (an acute mental health symptom to describe halting or sluggish functioning).  It was originally used as a blanket description for those with an "intellectual impairment", a permanent condition.  Wyatt, if born 20 years ago, would have been referred to by this term by his physician. If born in Europe less than 80 years ago, he would have been killed at birth, forcibly sterilized or been starved or gassed to death as "unfit" for life because of this term.

Like many other words in the English language (that shall remain nameless), that word was changed and became to mean many more things.  It became interchangeable for "silly" and "defective" and "ill conceived" and "not thought out" and a plethora of other definitions.  It also became a symbol of hatred, of mockery and of shame.  Shameful for parents who had borne such a child.  Hatred for abusers and mockery for those that bore the brunt of the abuse, many of whom could not defend themselves or possibly comprehend what was happening to them (which made them even more accessible as targets).  Understand too, that these are the times when people with learning disabilities were locked away and forgotten, allowed to rot in institutions without stimulation and without encouragement.  There was no in-home OT, there was no nourishing of the mind or spirit.  They were not allowed to develop, they were not allowed to achieve their potential.  They were discarded.  Like human garbage.

Times have changed, yes.  Luckily we have evolved and educated ourselves to not pick on those who are differently-abled.  At least in polite company, we do not use this term any more.

However, human nature being what it is, we don't like being told what to do.  Most people have no context; they don't know anyone with a learning disability.  Many people see this as "one more word that I cannot use" at the very least and "censorship" at most.  This fosters resentment.  I dig that.  I understand that because, once again, I am new at this special needs parent thing.  I understand as I used that word to mean many of those things up until about a year and a half ago. 

Spread the Word to End the Word and the day to day efforts of so many is not the embodiment of a group of parents (or the government, or whomever you picture) wagging their fingers at you telling you that you cannot do something.   It's not that paternalistic.

It's about people like Wyatt.

Whether you wish to admit it or not, it is about Wyatt and people like him.  Yes, you are not directly pointing at and making fun of a child with learning disabilities.  You are not throwing my son to the ground.  You are not torturing or starving him to death.

What you are doing is using the language of those who would (or have in the past).

When you use the word "retarded", you are using an antiquated word that, unfortunately has come to symbolize the struggle of people with learning disabilities.  You are using the language of the bully, you are using the language of the abuser.  You are using the language of those who hurt... and you are using it to describe your new bank fees.  When you do this, you are not only being offensive in the most literal definition, you are also being demeaning in the most literal sense of that word.  You are attributing (for example) my son's daily struggle to learn to eat, to learn to sit, to learn to read, to learn to speak, to your own inability to grasp your company's new vacation policy or what you think of some new rule in your kid's soccer league.

More often than not, it seems that people use this word to describe things that they themselves don't understand or find too complicated. There is irony here.

I have been told that I am "out of line" for asking people to not use the R-Word.  I have been called selfish, blind, misguided, oversensitive and foolish.  Oh yes, and the R-word itself, again just for irony's sake.  I have been told "it's just a joke" and I have been called a "fascist". (Once again, this is what fascists do to people with disabilities.) People "don't mean it that way" and when they use the word, somehow it is supposed to be transformed into something different.  Like making candy floss or sawing a lady in half.  Unfortunately, in reality, it's still just smoke and mirrors. All you've managed to do is show me how you can Bedazzle a turd.

It's not cool when those around me do it.  It's not cool when Hollywood does it.  I'm now going to do something that I rarely do:  eat my words.  Once upon a time, when this was all fresh and new and I was determined to be the "cool" parent of a kid with Down Syndrome and not be the word police, I said something that I now wish I hadn't.  I said that I did not believe that using this word in familial company or in an agreed safe place (such as among friends) was wrong.  I even joked that we were reclaiming this word.  We were going to take it back. 

I was wrong.  It is never okay.  (Chomp, chomp...)

When I have the rare moment to actually sit down to a movie or a TV show, I , like everyone else, want to be entertained.  For a block of time, I want to escape my reality.  I want to suspend my disbelief.  What I don't want, is to be dragged back into a reality where people "have fun" at the expense of others, just to get a cheap laugh.  Learning disabilities are not a punchline.

Maybe you think this is my problem or I am being "too sensitive", let me ask you this:  what if we change that word to "gay".  Or the N-word. Pick your slur, one that is used to degrade and demean a group of people. Not only is it not funny anymore, but I'm betting that there is a group of people out there, like a GLAAD or an NAACP who will tell you exactly how unfunny it really is.

Unfortunately, Wyatt doesn't have a group like that.  People with learning disabilities don't really have a watchdog champion. Those with Down Syndrome especially, being such a physically visible group, are considered, by some, "safe" for ridicule. Check YouTube, if you don't believe me.  After all, a guy with Down Syndrome isn't going to really ever be a police officer, right?  A person with Down Syndrome is probably never going to run a multi-billion dollar corporation or make sure you get your government assistance.  People with Down Syndrome probably won't be in charge of hiring or firing you in the near future.  There are less and less people born with DS these days too.  So, what's to lose?

I understand this is an argument that I am never going to win.  I understand there will always be bigotry and always be ignorance.  I understand, some can't grasp this concept and will blithely continue on.  You understand I will call you on your use of this word. You understand it's not okay and I consider you intelligent enough to know better.  You understand, you and your ilk will have no place in my life.

Bigotry, in any form, has no place in my world.  "Everyone does it", "it's just a word", "I don't mean it that way" are simply not acceptable.  Not any more.

There will be those that disagree, there will be those that get mad.  Feel free to un-friend, stop reading, whatever it is you do.  Before you go, stop for a second and ask yourself why you are feeling this way.  Honestly.  If you look deep enough you may find an answer that surprises you.  You may find a little guilt.  You may find that you know you are doing something wrong;  You may find that you are actually mad at yourself.

There's a couple other R words that I would rather see used:  Responsibility and Respect.  Responsibility for one's own words and actions... Respect for all.

"Retarded" is a constant reminder of struggle that thousands of families, including my own face on a daily basis.  It is a constant reminder that there are some very cruel people in this world.  One day I will have to explain to Wyatt's twin and older brother why it is that some ignorant kid (with even more ignorant parents) called their brother a horrible name or started a fight over Wyatt. I will one day, have to explain to Wyatt what cruelty is. What makes people do hateful things, why they must make others feel horrible so that they can feel better about themselves. Why they teach their children that such behaviour is okay.

But not today.  Not in the immediate future.  I have children to raise as happy, healthy, productive and caring members of society.  For now, that ugliness will be locked firmly outside.  Outside Team Logan.  Outside our vocabulary.  I don't care how many groups I have to leave or TVs I have to turn off or products I will stop using.  It will be outside, in the cold and the dark and be forgotten.

Where it belongs.

Make today the first day.  Take the pledge.  Make the conscious decision to stop using a word (and it's many permutations) that hurts those that certainly do not deserve it.  Do it for Wyatt, do it for yourself.

End the Word.

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  1. LOVE LOVE LOVE> Add to that "why weren't you so supportive of those with DS BEFORE you had a child affected by it?" I've heard that said before about other parents of DS kids. When I got pregnant at 42 I knew the risk of my baby having DS was somewhat elevated (and in truth I had a 1:8 chance of this being the case) and I was afraid; not of having what would be perceived as an "imperfect" child; but of having to educate all the ignorant people I know and realizing I may have to cut some of them out of my life.

    1. It is a terrible feeling to know that your child will never be accepted, for nothing more than a label and a ton of ignorance.

  2. Wonderful post. You arena inspiration. Excuse me while I go share it with everyone I know...

  3. "Unfortunately, Wyatt doesn't have a group like that." I have to disagree. He does, indeed, have a growing group of passionate advocates. That group is here. Right here. I'm very proud to count myself among its membership.

  4. You Rock! Well written and moving!

  5. Hello, just recently found your blog and love what articles i have read so far! I started a part-time retail (convenience store) job a few months ago and have noticed more people than I would like to using the r-word. do you have any suggestions on what i can/should say to let them know it is not ok?

    1. It will be awkward, but just tell them that it is not ok. Suggest you exchange the word "ridiculous" instead (that way it is self correcting with a slip). Be calm, be respectful but let people know it is the same as any other slur. If they cannot get that, let them know it is also not professional. Thank you for your kind words and your question. :)

    2. Thank you very much! I really appreciate it and will definitely be "correcting" them to ridiculous :)


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