I’m a bit insecure about this post. I don’t like sounding preachy, and as I think about what is coming, I don’t think there is any way for me not to. So thank you for bearing with me; I appreciate you putting up with a little bit of preach.
I used to use the word “retarded” as part of, I guess, slang. That stopped abruptly when I had a child with special needs. I’ve had others around me use it since then; they catch themselves, apologize, it’s awkward for two seconds, and we move on. I’ve seen people I’m friends with on social platforms use it, and depending on my relationship with them, I might reach out and say “hey heads up, maybe a different word.” One day just before Christmas I had an experience that was different. This time, it was someone who didn’t know my situation. It was the woman who cuts my hair.
It was the day after the Ms. Universe debacle. We were discussing how horrible the members of that situation must feel, and laughing because it actually got people talking about the Ms. Universe pageant again. We were chatting happily when this phrase came out of her mouth: “her answer didn’t make any sense and I thought she sounded retarded.”
My heart jumped the way it does every time I hear this word. My mind went into an internal civil war…
Do I call her on it? I know she wasn’t trying to offend me.
That doesn’t make it right. Use of that word is hurtful.
But it’s going to make her feel bad! And besides, she didn’t “mean it.”
Maybe she’ll use that word around someone impressionable and
they’ll start using it too. I’d better tell her.
I don’t like the use of that word. So why the internal back and forth? Because, I get it. Many people who use this word don’t mean to be harmful. Most don’t give a second thought to what it really means. Because what it really means, isn’t an insult. It’s a diagnosis (and actually not used that often anymore)…and the way that term is used in diagnosis is not the same as the way it’s used in slang.
But unfortunately, some people make fun of those with disabilities in really mean ways. Sometimes because they’re mean people, and sometimes because they don’t understand how cruel their actions are. Kids go through the McDonald’s drive-thu impersonating someone who can’t talk quite normally. A group of friends call guys they know and pretend to be a special needs person asking them on a date. I was witness to – and laughed at – both these situations in my younger days. Now I ask myself, what if one of those guys had a sibling with special needs? What if the person working at that drive-thru WAS a person with special needs? These memories haunt me now. At the time, I just thought it was funny.
I know most people don’t actually mean “a person with cognitive delay” when they use the word retard. But if we don’t tell them, how will they ever know they’re causing pain? So I decided to screw the very Minnesotan fear of bringing up an uncomfortable subject – I mustered my courage and spoke.
“Can I tell you something, and I don’t want you to feel bad?”
“Yes, of course!” Her body language changed; she straightened up, took her eyes off my hair and made direct eye contact with me in the mirror.
“I have a special needs child.”
“OH!” Her hand snapped up to her mouth, her eyes wide. “OH, I’m so sorry!! I didn’t even think about what I was saying!”
We recovered from a few moments of awkwardness and continued about our business. We had a brief Merry Christmas hug goodbye and I went back to work, hoping she wasn’t being too hard on herself, but happy that I’d spoken up.
The next day, I received a text from her. “Hey Kathleen! I know you said it wasn’t a big deal but I wanted to apologize again for what I said yesterday. I’m so glad you said something because it really made me think about it and be aware of the effects. Thank you and again I’m sorry.”
That she was texting me 24 hours later told me she was still thinking about it – and while the whole reason I spoke up was because I want people to realize what this word means, I didn’t want her to dwell on it. I responded immediately, telling her how much I appreciated how thoughtful she was about it, and that I thought she was a lovely person. Which I do.
So the next time you hear the r-word (or, for that matter, any other pejorative once used to describe a person), catch yourself. Think of me and my stylist friend. Yes, you and I both may have grown up thinking that word was cool or ok to use. We also thought that rolled jeans and Zima were cool. Now we know better.
(Thanks for your help Laura :-))