Wednesday, March 6, 2013

My Dearest Friends (A Spread the Word to End the Word Contribution)

Author's Note:  I wasn't going to write this today.  I wasn't.  I reposted one of my many prior posts on the R-word, and I was going to leave it at that.  However, that was before I saw not one, not two, but three different places on Facebook today where people were DEFENDING the use of the R-word.  Today, of all days, is the Special Olympics "Spread the Word to End the Word" Day.  It's a day to pledge to show respect to people with disabilities by ending your use of the R-word.  That doesn't seem like too much to ask.  

Apparently, for some, it was too much.  The advocacy clearly is not coming to a close on this subject.  This needed to be said...


My Dearest Friend, Family Member, or Acquaintance, 

It was in jest.  I saw it there - in black and white - on the screen before me.  Maybe it was a picture of you contorting your face.  Perhaps it was a self-condemning remark.  Sometimes it's a joke.  Others, you're just sharing someone else's joke.

It's the words you use that strike me to my core.  SPED.  Special Ed.  Retarded.  You use them in reference to your contorted face.  Your self-condemning remark.  Your joke.

Retarded.  I see it often.  It's become so ingrained in our vernacular that we don't think twice about using it.  You don't think twice about using it, even though I make it no secret that I have an autistic child.  I don't think you do it to be malicious; you do it because it's what you have always done.  It's an unfortunate bit of slang that has worked its way into pop culture.  You don't say it to wound; you say it because everyone else does.

I try - as nicely as I can - to educate you on just how much seeing that word hurts me, hurts my little family, and hurts my sweet little boy and others like him who have a disability.

That's not why I feel the need to write this letter.  I have to write this because you continue to defend it's use.  You protest when I try to educate.  You say "I wasn't talking about Jack" or "I would NEVER call a disabled person retarded".  The worst is when you throw it back on me.  The worst is when you say "Don't be so sensitive.  It's just a WORD."  Then, once I have been accosted for defending my child - who cannot speak for himself - I feel silenced.  I feel like "What's the point?"

Just a word, you say?  Let's examine that word.  The definition of the word "retarded" on the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary is the following:

Slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress.

My kid meets that definition.  So, to answer your assumption that you weren't talking about Jack or other disabled persons, well, yes you were.  The definition of the word "retarded" is referring to people, like my little boy, who have disabilities.  Nowhere in that definition does it include the following:

Less Than Anyone Else

Yet, when you call yourself or someone else "retarded" as a synonym for "clumsy", "stupid", "dumb", or "less than someone else", you connect those connotations to the word "retarded".

Still not convinced?  Since you think it's still okay to link a word like "clumsy" or "stupid" to the word "retarded", what if we were to link another word describing my son to those terms?  What if we substituted "retarded" with the word "autistic"?  What if each time you dropped something in your kitchen, or tripped, or said something without thinking, you said "I'm so autistic"?  Doesn't that sound horridly offensive?  Substitute any other disability, or condition, in the place of "retarded" and you are left with what can only be described as hate speech.  

Better yet, extend it out to any attribute describing a whole group of people, like race, gender, or nationality.  Use those terms in place of the word "retarded".  That sounds pretty horrible, too.

What makes "retarded" any different?  What makes it different is that it is so ingrained in our culture that people are clinging to it like dandelion seeds in the breeze.  No one wants to admit that they've said something that sounds bigoted or ignorant, so they defend it in any way they can.  They defend it by making the offended parties feel worse.  They defend it by citing its use by the majority.

Let me remind you, though, that majority opinion is not necessarily the right one.  Look back to WWII Germany.  The Deep South under Jim Crow.  America prior to women's suffrage.  Silencing a group of people by telling them that their offense is wrong - that they're being too sensitive - does not make your actions right or just.

You might follow that with "There's nothing wrong with the word.  People should be able to use the word, but let's take the hate out of it.  If we change it's meaning, then it won't be hurtful."

Here's the problem with can't rewrite history.  You can't rewrite the dictionary.  Your very use of the word retarded, as you used it to describe yourself or someone else as stupid, clumsy, or slow, was derogatory.  It was derogatory towards you or someone you know.  That in and of itself is infusing the word with hate.  Unless we go back to a time in which the word "retarded" is only used in medical literature, as a way of describing a person with delays, then the word "retarded" will still carry it's negative connotation.  Let's face it - I've yet to see anyone use the word "retarded" in a positive light.

And about medical vernacular...did you know that the word "retarded" is being replaced in most medical and educational literature?  Children like my son are referred to as having special needs, developmental disabilities, and cognitive delays or impairments.  

You might think, "It was acceptable once in the medical community, so what's the big deal?"  Sure it was.  So were the terms "moron", "idiot savant", and "childhood schizophrenic".  People like my son were locked up in institutions from an early age.  Subjecting children to "aversives" or punishments or "treatments" like electro-shock therapy were common.  Just because it was done or said once doesn't make it right.  Society and the medical community learn and grow and change with the advent of new understanding.

And that's what I'm asking of you.  I'm not asking you to repent for your previous sins with the use of that word.  I'm asking you to make a change going forward.  Believe me, there is nothing cool about using the word "retarded".  There's nothing cool about laughing or agreeing with someone else's use of it.  

You may get push back.  I obviously have, or else I wouldn't have to write this letter.  The true measure of courage, or someone's fortitude, is sticking up to one's friends and family in the face of something wrong.  So, I give you permission - use Jack as your reason.  Tell your friends that you know a wonderful little boy who has autism and that their use of the word "retarded" is very demeaning towards people - like that sweet little boy - who are disabled.  You may find more support than you imagine.

But please, I implore you, change your words.  Change for you.  Don't place the blame elsewhere.  Privately acknowledge to yourself that using that word is wrong and move forward.  Be a better person.  Be the change we'd all like to see in world.

Remember this - words reflect attitudes.  Attitudes reflect communities.  Communities reflect on society.  Society reflects on us all.  Change your words, and watch attitudes, communities, and society change along with them.


Need more reasons why to not use the R-word?  Read the following posts I have published on this very topic:

Choose Your Words Carefully
Someone Let Mama Bear Loose
The "R" Word
After that, go to to take the pledge to end your use of the R-word.  You'll be a better person for it, I promise you.


  1. I had to stop reading yesterday because I was getting so angry; not at people outside our community, but those IN IT, who were against "banning words". I have yet to see any kind of push for legislation to make it illegal and yet, you'd think we were trying to do just that. Isn't it enough that it's hurtful? That you are hurting those that in many cases can't fight back with words? Sigh... Blogging again today on the subject, but with a twist. :)