Thoughtful Thursday: “retard”

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

Is that true? Some words can hurt. A word is a word; how we interpret it ascribes its meaning. The tone of voice, an inflection, body language, and history all play into how a word is taken. I wish I could rise above hurtful words and recognize they are said in ignorance, laziness, or anger but it’s hard to take the high road when it involves one of your own children.

I have a mentally retarded daughter. Anna is not stupid. She is aware that she is different and it frustrates her that she cannot do the same things as others in such an easy, intuitive way. She has to work hard to meet milestones and she does work very, very hard! She also lives with autism and epilepsy… she copes with many challenges every minute of every day and yet she find joy and brings us joy by just being alive.

As I watch my daughter struggle and triumph with tasks such as reading and addition, hearing the word “retard” used in any form makes me flinch. It diminishes her hard work and her accomplishments. She does not have less value as a human being because her brain processes information differently than mine; nor does anyone with this label. The MR label is a way to get services to help her academically. Because of this label, she can receive instruction in reading, writing, and math in a 1:1 setting within her school district. It’s amazing to see the differences in black and white when she is in a resource setting versus a mainstream setting; she is not able to learn in a typical classroom. I am proud of her and I celebrate when she masters something because I know she worked very hard for that achievement. She has gifts and challenges, like every typical child.

There has been a movement to ban the “r” word… retard. It’s rarely used in an accurate, contextual way… more often it’s used to make fun of something or someone that is stupid or slow, to demean someone, or sometimes in a self-effacing way. I have friends who say, “I’m such a ’tard.” Most of the time, the word used in this manner does not intend to offend, it’s careless and thoughtless, but not malicious.

Quite frankly, I’m a little on the fence about banning the word. The “n” word is not a socially acceptable term yet when African-American rappers use it in their music, you don’t see picket signs around record stores or music stations. So where do we draw the line? Is the word “retard” something that should be socially shunned? I say absolutely yes. Words can hurt. But I don’t know that banning the word would accomplish a goal of inclusion… in fact, I think it would bring about more divisiveness. I wish I could rise above the ugliness of its connotations and not let it bother me, but I can’t. I’m forced to get in its face and take a stand. As more and more children with special needs are identified and integrated, we must embrace them, include them, and teach our children acceptance. It starts with us as parents.

A couple of years ago, my oldest daughter was taking driver’s ed. At the introduction of the car crash videos, the instructors said something like, “Yeah, you better be careful or you’ll end up like the retards on this video.” Jenny stood up and talked about Anna; she said that she doesn’t like that term and prefers cognitively challenged. You know what happened? She got laughed at. Someone even said, “Are you serious?” with a derisive tone and threw a pencil at her. I lodged a formal complaint against the teacher and fortunately the director of the agency was very supportive because has a niece with special needs. But I was dismayed by Jenny’s peers’ reactions and it made me scared for Anna. I was also very, very proud of my Jenny. I can’t imagine the courage that took, but she was undeterred by fear… she was driven by anger.

If someone uses the “r” word in my presence, I think about my little girl and decide to take a stand… I think about Jenny’s bravery, I think about being hurt by ugly words myself over the years, I think about Anna laughing with pure joy over something silly, I think about all of the amazing kids I’ve met on this journey, and I take a deep breath saying something as simple as, “Using the word ‘retard’ makes me uncomfortable, would you mind rephrasing that?” Sometimes I’ll go into more detail, sometimes I won’t. I’ve never gotten a negative response.

I’m not asking that you do the same, but maybe just think about how words have hurt you in the past and see if taking this particular word out of your vocabulary would be something easy to do. Pass this post along to family members who use the word if it’s too difficult to talk to them. Talk to your children.

We can each make a commitment to change, as individuals. It’s start with us… today… right now. Thank you for reading this and thinking about my little girl.

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  • keppler - I find myself looking forward to Thursdays. It is not OGIM (I don't have those any more) and not a Hump-day like Wednesday or a TGIF. Each day brings its own special joy for me now as I get older. Thursday is the day my oldest daughter shares her wisdom in her "Thoughtful Thursday" posts. And wise she is. In 4 days she turns forty and I'll be there to tell her, in person, how much I love her. You can already tell from her 'thoughts' that she is filled with love already.. but we'll squeeze more in. I assure you.ReplyCancel

  • Devin - Holly,
    Would it be alright if I linked back to this post on my blog?ReplyCancel

  • Rikki - This is so true Holly! I admit I used to use the "r" word when I was a teenager. Thankfully someone said something very similar to what you did and it helped me realize that even if I wasn't trying to hurt someone I very well could be, just by saying that word. Ever since then try my hardest to not say it(I admit it might have slipped once or twice, but I try to make a conscious effort to not say it), and I try and tell people the same thing I was told when I hear them say it.

    p.s. This is Dawn, you've made for me on Crumbsnatchers before(my daughter is Brinley).ReplyCancel

  • Dana - Thank you for this. I recently had a revelation of this type. I am embarrassed to say that I have used the word retard before and just a few weeks ago, I had an incident happen that made me sure that I will never use it again. I dont even remember what I was talking about, but a child with Downs was in ear shot and the look on her face when I said the word, really affected me. I cried I felt so terrible. I vowed at that moment to never use it again.ReplyCancel

  • P. Titibasana aka Cassie - Wonderful piece Holly, thanks for creating it. And the picture is superb. I Really must get you photos and have you develop a siggy that celebrates Georgina..I am struggling with her so much…I have to do things to just celebrate her beauty and hard work.ReplyCancel

  • Kim - You are very right. I use it without even thinking but it is more in the "I am such a tard" context that you mentioned, never to make fun of people. Anna has a lot of challenges to live with but from her pics she looks very happy and that is awesome.

    In the future, I will think before I speak because you never know who might be affected.

    Oh and BTW, your profile pic is gorgeous!!! You look so young…ReplyCancel

  • Amy - Just stumbled upon your blog but wanted to share how my co-director (community theatre) came to me one afternoon in tears. Her daughter who was born with downs syndrome was 10yo at the time and had received her official diagnosis of Mentally Retarded. I'll never forget the despair and sadness that the diagnosis had for this mom. I told her it was only a medical term and not a label and she needs to think of it that way.
    From that moment on I understood the pain of the word and cautioned my children on the proper use of the term.

    If only the rest of society could/would do the same.ReplyCancel

  • UhManDuh - In a world of labels,its a hard day when you have to swallow a label on your child. We as parents want to shield them from every hurt. Every cut and scrape. And when we absolutely,can not,it hits us hard. Not only in her thoughts but our hearts.
    Anna is a beautiful child. You can see from every picture,the innocent beauty she has for the world.
    I was raised by a mother and a godmother who REFUSED to enable me to see the "difference" in anyone else. I was raised that everyone is unique. Whether in the way they speak or the color they appear or whatever. I wasnt allowed to use terms such as, "retard" or "n*****", because they wouldn't allow it. I didn't even know the words until I was much older. Where I went to high school,they segregated the "normal" kids from the "special needs" kids. They ate lunch different from us. They took recess different from us. Gym class,etc. I never understood it. Then in my sophomore year of high school,they de-segregated everyone. My friends and I sat at the same table all four years of high school. The table we sat at,happened to be the table where the special kids sat. A senior walked over to the group at the end of the table. They asked one of the kids to "throw their plate away". Harmless as it seemed,it wasn't. Because we weren't allowed to throw them in the trash (it was the reusable plastic?) Anyway the lunch lady went crazy on the poor kid. Screaming at him in the middle of a lunch rush. You could see he was completely flustered and didn't understand. He ran back to his seat and was in tears. From then on,the school went back to segregating the students. I always was disappointed. Not only in my peers for their actions but for myself,for not reacting. Though I didn't know his intentions,when I did I should have said something.
    I guess we're raised in a society that isn't forgiving of anything that isn't "the norm". We're so use to being thinkers "inside the box" that we cant imagine whats outside of it (the box) Tristian is going to be tested soon for autism. His docs think he has a extremely MILD case of it. That it isn't a debilitating thing (for him). I'm worried. I don't want him to wear a label. I dont want him to have any setbacks because of a label.ReplyCancel

  • Carol Askew - Wonderful post Holly. Thanks for sharing this.ReplyCancel

  • Laura - holly, you are amazing, girl. 🙂 i really enjoy reading your posts, they're always very thoughtful, honest and true. you're a great mom!ReplyCancel

  • Ashley - You've articulated your thoughts beautifully here, Holly. Thank you for reminding all of us how deeply a single word can hurt.ReplyCancel

  • Kim D - This is a great post Holly. Thank you for sharing. My youngest brother has special needs. I remember standing up for him on more than one occasion. Go Jenny!ReplyCancel

  • ~Holly - For my sweet CMers that are coming here today in support, I want to thank each of you so much. Not just for responding, but for reading and caring. Your kindness touches me and reminds me that I am not alone. Thank you. <3ReplyCancel

  • Anonymous - Lovely post. I hope it helps stop the thoughtless use of such a horrible word. Though we have insensitive people here that word hasn't been used in Australia for a long time.ReplyCancel

  • Walking to end the “r” word » Holly Anissa - […] This Saturday, the 2011 Best Buddies Friendship Walk takes place in downtown Austin. Our family is walking as a team… “Anna’s Buddies” and we would be honored to have your support. This walk is part of a campaign to end the “r” word ~ a word that hurts those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. To understand how passionately I feel about this subject, please read this post titled “Thoughtful Thursday: retard.” […]ReplyCancel

  • Terin Garrett - Holly, this post has me in tears!! A close friend of mine had a son who had down’s syndrome and I’ve had this discussion with her about the “r” word and completely understand where y’all are coming from. It disgusts me to hear the term thrown around as slang. 🙁ReplyCancel

  • Think About Her » Holly Anissa - […] I’ve written about the “r” word before and how much it hurts. Even though that post was written nearly three years ago, each time I see a friend use the word, I still wince and have […]ReplyCancel

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