Stop The Word

Anna G & Anna C

Anna G & Anna C

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.

Shauna painting in The Connection

Shauna painting in The Connection

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.

One of our social events at The Connection

One of our social events at The Connection

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.

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

8 thoughts on “Stop The Word

  1. Thank you Debra! It has only been in the last two or three years that our Alabama Public Schools actually quit using that “label”. We were asked several times to classify Laura Beth as such. We never would, nor could.

    • Kate, thank you for reading and commenting! I love your girl so much…she is so bright, funny, talented and such a light in my life. Stick to your guns and never let anyone label her at that!!! I’m encouraged that 8,000 people from 51 countries have read my post…so far…and the number continues to climb! Maybe it will impact a few people to put a face to the word before they use it!

  2. Debra,

    This is powerful and had me looking inside myself.

    I agree with everything you say, however to play devils advocate, I think also if we stop giving so much power to words in general, it would make the process so much easier.

    I’m half black and half white, and also grew up in Alabama. So not only was I called a nigger, I was also in fights once a week for my mom being a cracker.

    But once I grew up, I stopped putting strength in those labels, because I realized they’re not as powerful as my will to live and my will to be a better person than the person who is trying to put me down… (Or even make a joke)

    But that’s just my thoughts. But you’re right, although I have never called someone the “R” word straight out I should really stop saying “that’s retarded.”

    I hope this gets to as many people as you intended to!

    Robert
    http://www.thescareddad.com

  3. Debra,

    This is powerful and had me looking inside myself.

    I agree with everything you say, however to play devils advocate, I think also if we stop giving so much power to words in general, it would make the process so much easier.

    I’m half black and half white, and also grew up in Alabama. So not only was I called a nigger, I was also in fights once a week for my mom being a cracker.

    But once I grew up, I stopped putting strength in those labels, because I realized they’re not as powerful as my will to live and my will to be a better person than the person who is trying to put me down… (Or even make a joke)

    But that’s just my thoughts. But you’re right, I say although I have never called someone the “R” word straight out I should really stop saying “that’s retarded.”

    I hope this gets to as many people as you intended to!

    Robert
    http://www.thescareddad.com

    • Robert, thank you for taking the time to read my post and to comment! I totally agree with you…words only carry the amount of weight we give to them. I’m sorry for the slurs you have been exposed to in your life and am glad you are strong enough to know that you are not your label! I’ve been amazed at the response to the post – almost 8,000 people from 51 countries have read it so far! I hope to continue to shed light on the fact that we’re all more alike than we are different and that “normal” is a dryer setting (my favorite slogan!). I am about to visit your page right now!

      • “Normal is a dryer setting…” GENIUS!

        The slurs are what helped me build my character. But what I have to remember, and what my wife constantly reminds me of, is that not everyone is as “strong” as I am, so I do feel the importance of these words being phased out as much as possible.

        Here’s to 8000 more!!!

        Robert

  4. Pingback: Stop The Word | therapissedmad1's Blog

  5. While I agree to an extent, I don’t totally. I grew up in the north but spent last twenty years in al. “Yankee” could be derogatory too. I never really heard it until called a damn one the first few yrs here and now I jokingly call my dad who is elderly and just moved here.
    I have cousins with downs and various “disabilities” we called them retarded. Because they are it was wasn’t mean. It meant they had a “slowed” brain development. And an iq of 60 or less. My brother was slow, and his is 80. I was angered as a kid by the r word thrown at him bc of those 20 points. Bc he wasn’t really retarded. Back then the term special needs wasn’t common place. Words are words. They will continue to change. Saying the fbomb could mean nothing or a lot. And so could saying darn it. It’s the same context. Now saying special needs is irritating cos it is making certain people more special than our other children?? When my kids were younger they asked if they were special. If course they are! “But why don’t we go to special classes?” Well you do honey. You go to gifted classes. This is pretty darn special too! Are we not all special? And so now that word is too thwarted.
    Just like the word minority no longer means less in a population. If white people are the minority, they are not called that, for it simply means black people.
    I’d love to know how this is in 20 yrs..
    Don’t get me started on calling people short…

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