About two years ago, I made a frustrating mistake, nothing big but one that would create extra work for me. In the moment, I said something out loud, without thinking. Thankfully, there was only one person around to hear my shocking word choice.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” I said. “I’m such a retard.”
The expression on my team member’s face is what made me realize what I had said, as she looked at me with disgust and disappointment. And then, my mind went immediately to the precious faces of the people I love so much and their families. I was instantly ashamed. How could I, of all people, have used that word? And even though I didn’t say it with malice, how hurt would they all be if they knew I had used it?
I was born in 1960 and have lived in Alabama all my life. The “N” word wasn’t part of my family’s vocabulary but I heard it, all the time, all around me. The first time I remember understanding that the “N” word was horrible and hurtful was when I was nine and someone I knew used the word in front of an African-American woman who was a guest in our home. I will never forget the look on the woman’s face … the look of humiliation and silent outrage and hurt. Even though I was only a child and was being raised in the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I grasped the implications of that word because I saw the effect it had on the face of a woman I knew.
The “R” word is every bit as hateful and as hurtful as the “n” word, is every bit as derogatory and pejorative as any ethnic or racial slur people invoke. The definition of “retarded” is: less advanced in mental, physical or social development than is usual for one’s age. The “R” word used to be a medical diagnosis but today, the medical community uses “intellectual disability” and the “R” word has become a convenient slang, something people use to describe others or actions in a deprecatory way. This needs to stop … like yesterday.
When our mothers told us, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you,” they were just trying to make us feel better. We all know that many times, words hurt even more than punches. You’re so gay; you’re such a Jew; how ghetto is that; you’re so retarded … sure, they’re just words but when used in that context, they are words meant to imply inferiority and insult, words that are used with the intent to throw a punch more powerful than a fist.
Last week, I asked one of the girls in Project UP a question. She looked at me with panic as she frantically searched her mind for the answer. I gave her a hint and when she remembered it, her face was flooded with relief. Because she is intellectually disabled, it is difficult for her to process information as quickly as I can. She has to work ten times harder than I do just to answer a question … or write her name … or say the alphabet. This doesn’t make her dumb or stupid or inferior; it actually makes her smarter than me because she has adapted to her disability by finding other ways to cope with a world that is difficult for her to navigate. She is every bit as valuable, her feelings every bit as important as yours and mine. She told me once that she knows she has, “Something called Down syndrome” and that, “It takes me longer to learn things” but what she doesn’t know is that people use her diagnosis as a way to disparage or insult other people. I hope she never learns that.
We’ve come a long way with the “N” word…we’re making headway on the negative use of “gay” and “fag” and “homo” … we still have a long way to go with all the other ethnic and racial slurs we hear every day. It’s easy to use a word in a negative way to cast aspersions on a group if we don’t know anyone who belongs to that group but when we put a face with that word, it becomes personal. Before I knew people with special needs, I didn’t think about what it meant to use the “R” word but now that I know so many, I see a face when I hear that word … a child, an adult, a teenager, a parent, a brother, a sister…the faces of the people who would be hurt by the use of the word. Which makes my thoughtless use of the “R” word even worse.
Some members of Project UP got to meet Jane Lynch back in July when they performed at the National Dance Day Gala in Los Angeles. She was sitting on the front row of the theatre and even before the music ended, she started a standing ovation for Project UP that instantly spread throughout the theatre and lasted for nearly six minutes, which made everyone affiliated with Project UP become her biggest fans. Ms. Lynch and actress Lauren Potter (Becky on “Glee”) have a public service announcement that is part of the “Stop the ‘R’ Word” campaign, which makes us love her even more … take a look if you haven’t seen it before:
March 3 is the first day of “Spread The Word To End The Word Week.” Click here to view their website, which is full of information, like suggestions for how to stop the use of the “R” word, powerful videos and testimonials that are enlightening and informative. The site asks us to take a pledge: I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. I’ve taken the pledge and I hope you will too.