The doctor chimed in, “Yeah, that would be really retarded.”
I was fuming as much at the doctor as I was at Boy 2 by the time we left, but I only gave an earful to the latter. I considered calling, emailing, or writing the doctor’s office, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say about something that I thought should be obvious: the R word is offensive, and offensive language is highly unprofessional.
Although we do still go to that practice, I have purposefully never seen that doctor again. I’ve also never stopped kicking myself for not saying something to him, just so he would hopefully think before using the R word again.
Fast forward about 2 years, to the final weeks of this past school year. As we walked home from the bus stop, I listened to one of the boys and his classmate talking about the silly games they’d played at school that day. I gathered from their conversation that the teacher and several students – including my own child – had used the R word to mean “goofy” or “ridiculous.”
I was floored. I checked with my son to make sure I understood him right. “YOU used that word?” I realized that he didn’t know why he shouldn’t; we’d never had a conversation about it before, and it was only natural for him to repeat a word he heard his teacher say. So I took my emotions down a few notches with him, but it was literally hours before I could even start to write an email to his teacher without shaking. Nevertheless, as I vividly remembered the doctor’s office incident, I knew I couldn’t let this go.
After a couple of emails went back and forth, I realized something: the teacher didn’t really know why she shouldn’t use the R word. This epiphany was astonishing to me, and it also changed my heart towards her. I had internally reacted as though she had dropped an F-bomb in class, because that’s the power I know the R word to have. But she didn’t know. It truly did not occur to her.
So I sent her another email, explaining what the R word is to me, a person with an intellectually disabled brother. When she emailed me back, I knew her heart had changed as well.
Fast forward about 2 months, as I was catching up on my email and blog reading after our trip to NC. There it was again, on the web page of a very popular ministry blogger – only this time, it was slightly hidden. He had taken a word and added “-tard” to the end, creating a word he obviously intended to mean as a person who is not very skilled at this particular thing. Why he couldn’t just say “I’m not good at that,” I didn’t know, but I did know I was done staying silent, so I emailed him. When he replied, it was evident to me that he knew the power of the R word, but it simply had not occurred to him that “-tard” meant the same thing. Again, I was astonished. How could he not have realized that?
These are just 3 of many times I have heard or seen the R word, and it seems to happen more and more. So here’s what I want to tell everybody out there: when you use the word “retard” or any variable of it to mean goofy, silly, stupid, clumsy, awkward, incapable, incompetent, unthinking, etc., YOU are the one who is not thinking. You are not thinking that you are speaking of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in a belittling way. You are not thinking that your words demonstrate to others around you that it must be okay to put down people who, through no fault of their own, have limited abilities. You are not thinking about how much you may be hurting someone. You are not thinking that this word is just as harmful as a racial slur, a stereotype, or making fun of someone for anything that they can’t help. You are not thinking that we shape the world with the words we use, especially in front of children and youth.
And when you are not thinking, you are being thoughtless.
One of my favorite books, Wonder* by R.J. Palacio, puts it like this: “Sometimes you don’t have to mean to hurt someone to hurt someone.” The lack of intent doesn’t make the hurt less real. So please, THINK before you use the R word. THINK of a better word to use. And when (not if, I’m afraid) you hear someone else say it, don’t stay silent. Help them to change their minds and hearts.
In the process of carefully composing my emails, I discovered some great educational resources out there, including:
•This 30-second PSA featuring actresses Lauren Potter and Jane Lynch (not suitable for younger viewers, but very powerful for those of us who influence them):
•This video made by the mom of a boy with cerebral palsy:
•Love That Max, the blog of the above mom
•This amazing poster by graphic artist Alison Rowan:
|You can order this here.|
Wouldn't it be great in every classroom?
•TheRWord.org, another website with resources worth browsing.
Check ‘em out! Let’s shape the world with the words we don’t use as well as the words we do.
*I feel I should point out that this book does use the R word – to mean a person with intellectual disabilities. I don’t want you to read it and then think I’m a hypocrite for recommending a book that uses the R word. For the record, I wish the author had used “intellectually disabled” instead, and took the opportunity to talk to Boy 1 about it when we read Wonder together.