Monday, September 14, 2009

Everyone else uses the word, what's your problem?

Our-kids is a group of over 1000 people who all are people who are in one way or another in the special needs community. Most of us are parents, but there are teachers, doctors, therapists, siblings, and some are the person with the diagnosis.

It is a worldwide community, but most are from the United States. We benefit from having an international membership, because it can be quite interesting to hear about viewpoints or medical procedures that are going on in other countries.

Over the years, I have had faceless names become close friends, engaged in discussions about body functions you wouldn’t mention to your doctor, and gained a valuable sounding board for advice and ideas. I have grown to care about a lot of these people, and their lives as much as some of my own friends.

There has been a conversation going on lately that is all about one word. In our community of special needs, it is the word that nobody speaks, much like nobody in the rest of the world wants to say nigger. Instead the rest of the world usually says the N word. With us, the one word is retarded.

With a lot of words that get thrown around, you can use it in a context that makes it OK. The N word gets used with regularity on the BET channel with comedians, and gets big laughs. In my own community of people that I have come to know that use chairs to get around, they sometimes throw around the word cripple with regularity. It’s not a word I would ever use, but hearing it in the context of guys on a wheelchair basketball team throwing at each other with glee, it seems alright.

I have always been a person who looks not so much at the word but at the use of it, or the person using it. I have had some people ask me questions about Skyler, that have wondered how he became crippled, or used other terms that I don’t care for. But when the intent behind the words is not malicious, and they really care, it is easy to excuse somebody for not being up on what language is proper. And believe me, I can spot sincerity in a person versus someone who should know better a mile away.

So what is it about the word retarded that bothers us so much? That has been the question going around, and I wanted to try and give you an idea of how much it hurts to hear it, and where I come from when I do.

All through Skylers life there has been a constant need to try and label him. Maybe that is the way the school system works, or how society is, I don’t really know. But there seems to be an issue with leaving a kid who is different from the rest without some sort of a label to put on them. We don’t do it with other kids, so what is the point? And yet, we are constantly fighting the perception that since he can’t talk, and is in a chair, he certainly must have some sort of delays “just like all of our other special kids”.

That right there is the key phrase, “all of our other special kids”.

Like a lot of other kids that face some sort of a challenge, Skyler went through school with an IEP. This stands for Individual Education Plan, and is laughingly un-individual. Any kids who doesn’t fit the typical mold, well they all go down the hall to special ed, with the rest of the retarded children. Because Skyler can’t gift you with clever or instant conversation, he must be retarded. Because Skyler can’t tolerate the level of noise in a particular room due to his sensory integration problems, when he starts to cry, it must be because he is retarded.

And what do you hear in the halls of the school every day? Retard, used over and over, with it’s never ending suffix to any word, -tard. It has become like anything –gate used because of Watergate. Don’t like a particular group of people, or have an issue with a segment of society? Just append tard to it and it become an instant and handy insult that everyone can enjoy. And does this present a problem with anyone, staff, teachers, anybody in society who is in a position of authority? In my experience, no. Because they probably use the word themselves.

So the question becomes what to do about it? Certainly there are a lot more pressing matters in the world going on, and gee Chris, aren’t you being a bit touchy? Yes, and probably yes. But on the second point, I would invite you to take that proverbial mile long walk in my shoes, then reflect on whether or not I might be touchy.

Because as this video by Soeren Palumbo points out so much better than I have been able to, I wonder why we take the most vulnerable segment of our society and make fun of them?

And if any of this has touched you in any way, or made you reconsider how to remove retarded from your lexicon, than I am glad I spent the time to try and get the point across. And if you feel that just one person less using the word won't make a difference, consider this next video by Bob Blue, called Courage. Bob was a middle school teacher as well as a singer and song writer, who came up with this song as a way to try and teach his kids about how just going along with the rest can't be used as an excuse.

Thank you so much for reading this, and don't worry, the silly stuff will return soon,
Chris (Sky-Dad)


Del-V said...

I have a sister who is mentally handicapped. She was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I always have to add that she was adopted and that her condition is by no fault of my parents. It’s hard for me to talk about her in my blog (on the rare occasion that I do blog) because to the casual reader it may appear that I am making fun of her. I would never do that. I have great stories about Jane because Jane has a great sense of humor – which is why she fits into my family so well. But I try to protect her, so I keep her off-limits. But I agree with everything you said.

Thanks for writing this. I really enjoyed it!

Raven said...

Very timely. I spoke to a woman today about her use of that word and how I did not appreciate it.
I find it amazing that we spend so much time telling our children hat they are special and individuals and then send them to school where they want to pigeon hole them into one of two slots, normal and not normal. Frustrates the hell out of me.
PS I agree about the IEP's. Laura has one for's a piece of paper I sign every year and they then ignore...what a joke.

J.J. in L.A. said...

My 'trigger word' is cripple. The only person I allowed to say it was also in a wheelchair. So we could use jest, of course.

I loved Mr. C's, 'Wheelchairs don't mean retards' comment. I have a cousin who is profoundly mentally retarded (in her late 40's w/the mental capacity of a 2 year old). In her case, I think it's an okay use of the word but disabled people should not be lumped together.

SkylersDad said...

Thanks so much for the kind words you guys!

Grant Miller said...

Excellent and relevant stuff, Chris. As for being touchy, this is is one of those times where if you're not touchy about the subject you're not paying attention. You clearly are paying attention and Skyler has a lot to be thankful for his two quite loving and devoted parents.

teri said...

I tend to use that word with people I work with because they are in fact, a bit goofy.

I would never use that word around someone with a handicap because that's just cruel.

I guess I'm from the old school. Most of the words we used then were so harmless and I still use them and they have the same meaning to me today.

expateek said...

This is an amazing post. And the videos are so powerful. This was not a word in my vocabulary, and it never will be, but it's super to have an amazing and convincing case against it!


kristi said...

Great post. My son is high functioning autistic and he is with kids who hardly can speak, however this last year he has been mainstreamed more. There is not really a place for him in our small school district but the school is trying to help him by putting him in 2 mainstream classes a day. He does speak very well so that is a plus for him. I really don't like the "short bus" comments, because my baby rides the short bus but he is not retarded.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on your blog from a comment you made over at the Vegetable Assassin's place. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this post. I have dwarfism and for me my despised word is the M-word. I don't even like writing it so I hope you know what I am talking about. The word gets thrown around on TV, in public, in punchlines and believe it or not, I even saw it as part of a clue on Jeopardy. *sigh* Some days I have all the energy in the world to bounce back from hearing it, other times it just makes me crumble. Then there are all the derailing techniques that people's just a joke, don't be so PC, freedom of speech, etc, etc. Like you, I've learned how to tell the difference between the well-intentioned(but uninformed)people and the ones who are just mean and nasty.
Anyways, the long and short of this is that I totally understand what you are saying and greatly appreciate you writing about this. - G