I remember the first time in my life that the “R-word” gave me pause.
It was two years ago — I was working in advertising as a writer. I was in the passenger seat of a client’s car, we were headed to lunch on a sunny day — and I can remember the way the sunlight flooded in through the sun roof.
My client was chatting about something work-related — and, in a moment of annoyance about someone or something, she said, “He’s so retarded.”
It’s a small moment in life, really, one that is usually forgotten as soon as it passes — but I can remember my thoughts as a new mom to a 1-year-old with Down syndrome. I thought to myself: “I think that word is supposed to be offensive to me now.” And knowing that my client knew that my child had “special needs,” I thought: “And I think other people are supposed to be more sensitive about it now, too.”
This was an honest moment — because truthfully, I wasn’t overly thoughtful about the “R-word” at the time.
I knew that my client adored my daughter, Kate. She would jump in front of a bus for her, climb a mountain for her, sing her praises from the rooftop — and after all, she wasn’t talking about Kate when she used the word “retarded,” she was talking about someone else — someone who didn’t have intellectual disabilities. I knew that she used this word as a habit, as casually as saying something “doesn’t make sense.” I knew that she would never say something derogatory about a person who actually had an intellectual disability — and that the word was so disassociated for her that it had almost taken on a new meaning. But still, something nagged at me.
As a child of the 80’s, I heard the R-word a lot.
Used on playgrounds, in classrooms, in movies. It was similar to other words that evolved from purely descriptive statements (about religion or sexual preference or otherwise) into casual put-downs.
I was never a user of these words, and in retrospect did have a special sensitivity to them — but I also never thought about the silent victims of these words. The people who may not even be a part of the conversation: the onlookers, the over-hearers, the victims that know these “slam” words are the same ones used to describe aspects of them.
And truthfully, I just hadn’t ever put much thought into it.
Then, last week, I did.
I read a powerful article called I Am the Person You Hurt When You Say the R-Word by John Stevens, Special Olympics Global Messenger. John has Down syndrome and a powerful perspective.
To all of you who use it, let me say it one more time, THE R-WORD HURTS. You don’t have to aim the word directly at me to hurt me and millions of others like me who live with an intellectual disability. Every time a person uses the r-word, no matter who it is aimed at, it says to those who hear it that it is okay to use it. That’s how a slur becomes more and more common. That’s how people like me get to hear it over and over, even when you think we aren’t listening.
So, why am I hurt when I hear “retard.” Let’s face it, nobody uses the word as a term of praise. At best, it is used as another way of saying “stupid” or “loser.” At worst, it is aimed directly at me as a way to label me as an outcast — a thing, not a person. I am not stupid. I am not a loser. I am not a thing. I am a person.
It hurts me to think that people assume that I am less than a whole person. That is what is so awful about slurs. They are intended to make their target seem smaller, less of a person. People who live with an intellectual disability do not have an easy life. We have to fight to understand what the rest of you take for granted. We fight for education. We fight to live among the rest of you. We struggle to make friends. We often are ignored, even when we have something to say. We fight so hard to be seen as whole people. It hurts so much, after all that struggle, to hear you casually use a term that means that you assume we are less than whole.
When I read this, I pictured Kate overhearing someone use the “R-word” as an insult — even if it wasn’t directed at her. I remembered a time I heard a friend refer to an awkward-looking person as looking “Downsy.” I thought about the times I overheard people pretending to speak with a speech impediment if they were trying to act confused or unintelligent. And I realized the profound truth of John’s words.
All of these things are done in derogatory jest because our world all-too-often sees the people these words, phrases and actions are associated with as less than whole. Less than ideal. Less than.
So what’s the whole story on ending the “R-word”?
It’s more than just an attempt to be overly politically correct.
The whole story is that by using the word we are contributing to the idea that someone else is worth less. And more specifically, that the group of people from whom the phrase originated are worth less.
I am still understanding of my well-meaning friends who use the word thoughtlessly (as I said, I hadn’t thought about it too much myself). But thoughtlessness from the mouth of the “user” does not change the effect on the victims — who, in a world where we’re all fighting to be seen as whole and valuable, are all of us.