Let me introduce you to my writer friend and fellow Williams Syndrome mother, N. Paslay. She wrote an essay that struck deep into my heart. I’m grateful that she allowed me permission to share her words here. I cringe whenever I hear this word, precisely for the reasons that she so eloquently states. Please, let’s realizes there are consequences to the words that we choose. 🙂
I have heard people defend their right to use the words “retard” or “retarded” as slang.
“Everybody is so politically correct these days. It’s ridiculous.”
“I don’t mean anything by it.”
“I was calling a thing ‘retarded,’ not a person.”
I completely understand. People can be overly sensitive when it comes to politically correct terms. I know those around me probably don’t mean anything by using this word, sometimes liberally and with great gusto. What you don’t know is that every time I hear this word thrown around in casual conversation, it feels like a knife is being shoved into my heart.
Let me explain.
A few years ago, we were new parents. We sat in a small room in a children’s hospital with our 17-month-old, who didn’t smile or behave like other children. A geneticist sat across from us and informed us that our son was “mentally retarded.” This is not a term new parents are prepared to hear. He even pulled out a piece of paper with a scientific graph on it and used it to explain how mentally retarded he would be. My heart broke as the dreams I had for my child were destroyed. We drove home with this word hanging over us in the car. It was the first time I really considered what it meant.
1. Affected with mental retardation.
2. Occurring or developing later than desired or expected; delayed.
As much as I hated to admit it, that was true. My son hit about every milestone about two years later than most children. I sat in his pediatrician’s office time and time again, answering “no” to every developmental question about our son for years. Because of this, I dreaded each and every visit.
By the time I came to terms with the word in a clinical sense, it was deemed outdated by parents, lawmakers, and doctors and is now slowly fading from even medical literature.
Outside of the medical field, of course, the word morphed into an ugly insult over the decades. This is quite evident by referring to one online slang dictionary.
An “unofficial” (not recognized by dictionaries) slang descriptor for a person/thing/action/object, etc., or a combination of, which is one or more of the following:
a waste of time, abandoned, abject, abominable, abortive, absurd, afraid, aimless, anxious, apprehensive, arid, arrested, assailable, atomic, awful, baby, babyish, backward, bad, banal, barmy, barren, base, baseless, bastard, beastly, beggarly, behind, beside the question, blah, bland, bogus, bomb, bootless, boyish, brainless, bromidic, bummer, careless, catchpenny, characterless, cheap, checked, cheesy, childish, childlike, clichéd, cloying, coarse, colorless, common, commonplace, confusing, contemptible, contemptible, controvertible, conventional, cool, corn, cornball, corny, corrupt, counterproductive, cowering, cracked, crap, crappy, craven, crazy, crud, cruddy, daffy, daft, dastardly, dazed, dead, deadpan, deficient, degraded, degrading, dejected, delayed, delusive, dense, dense, deplorable, depraved, despicable, destitute, detestable, devoid, diffident, dim, diminutive, dippy, directionless, dirty, disgraceful, dishonest, dishonorable, dismayed, disposable, disreputable, dizzy, dodo, doltish, dopy, dotterel, down, downtrodden, drab, drifting, drudging, dull, dumb, empty, empty-headed, erratic, everyday, evildoer, excessive, exhausted, expendable, expressionless, facetious, failed, failing, faint-hearted, fallacious, false, fanciful, fatuous, fawning, featherbrained…
You get the idea.
When someone uses the “R” word as casual slang, it references part of their very own community. People they may love. People who might be their neighbors, friends, or coworkers. People they have never met standing behind them in line at the supermarket. I once listened to a group of teens with my son’s diagnosis express how much this word profoundly hurts them.
I have heard people say, “But I would never call a person a retard. That’s different!” I remind them that they routinely use this word to describe things that are faulty, defective, or useless to them. Even without knowing it, they are using this word that refers to a group of people who may not be able to voice their hurt or objection — vulnerable people who have been abused, institutionalized, and marginalized for centuries. It seems harmless, but it’s not.
What it boils down to for me personally is that they are comparing something that is inadequate or useless to someone like my child. Although I do not consider him inadequate or useless, the word still stings like hell, because I know exactly where it comes from.
Yes, you can say what you want. I can’t argue with that. I just ask you to think about how the words you use affect those around you, especially young people who have a longer, more difficult road than most ahead of them in this world.
I love you for this post!
I just wanted you to know I stand with you. I never use the ‘R’ word & raised my son not to say it either. I cringe every time I hear it too.
Thank you for sharing your post. I think if more people thought about the actual meaning of their words, they would be more considerate.
I have to admit that for years I didn’t really think about the use of various slang words. It was simply a part of the culture I existed in. But two things happened almost simultaneously that really opened my eyes to the significance a simple word that means almost nothing to us can have to someone else.
1) I spent time with a homosexual friend who descirbed how offended she got when someone used the word “gay” as an adjective to say something’s stupid or unnecessary. Since she had a badge and a gun at the time, I didn’t argue with her!
2) My nephew, who has severe Down’s, became old enough to start understanding what people said about him-and it hurt when people used the word “retarded” to dismiss him.
As the parent of a child with hearing problems who had significant speech and language delays for a very long time, I know how frustrating watching your child miss those developmental delays can be-and how badly you want to deck people who don’t understand. I can’t say I’ve completely cut these words out of my vocabulary-I slip now and then-but I’m trying. Hopefully others who read this will do the same.
I really think that this post will hit home with more people than will actually want to admit it. There are so many words out there that people use everyday that are not appropriate and affect others around us. I am glad that you posted this. It give people something to think about. A lot of people just say things without thinking. It just slips out and they don’t give it a second thought. Maybe if we are more conscious of what we are saying, then we might choose better, more appropriate responses.
I thought this blog was about broken laptops.
Thanks, Anne! N. did a wonderful, wonderful job. I read this essay and thought, “YES!” She worded it beautifully.
Jenn, all the love in the world to you for teaching your son to speak well. Words have so much more power than we even realize.
Renee, I grew up using the “R” word, too. I used quite a few slurs that I didn’t realize were slurs. It’s been a challenge to cull them out of my language, but just as you say, there are hurtful meanings behind the words. You have my utmost respect. 🙂
Thanks for your comment, Regina! It’s always risky to post something like this because I don’t want to hurt or offend anybody, but N. wrote this essay with such kindness and earnestness that I didn’t feel it was bitter at all. I think life is all about kindness. 🙂
broken laptop- Nope! I wrote my first novel on a broken laptop. That’s the origin.
I know this is an older post and I’m weighing in a little late…but this is a post you should put up in schools everywhere. You should post it in doctor’s offices and church bulletin boards. EVERYWHERE.
Your candor is wrapped in kindness. That’s the way to do it. Thank you.