“I hate when my son says that word,” the mom of a 10-year-old griped to me. “I tell him not to, but he keeps using it!” We’d been talking about the word “retard” and how offensive it is to me as the parent of a child with intellectual disability—and to my son, too, even though he does not yet understand the meaning of the word.
Today is a national awareness day for Spread The Word To End The Word, a campaign created by the Special Olympics. Even as parents of kids with special needs have pleaded with others to just use a different word that’s not demeaning, kids and adults still aren’t getting why it’s a crappy word. Doubters claim it’s perfectly fine to use as slang. Others say we’re stomping on their freedom of speech. That we’re being too politically correct. That we’re being overly sensitive.
Thing is, it is personal when people basically equate my son, Max, with a word that means stupid or loser. In case you’re wondering, “mental retardation” was once an accepted clinical diagnosis. It no longer is because the words “retard” and “retarded” have become derogatory, yet the ghosts of its past linger on. When someone jokingly calls a person a “retard” or describes a situation as “retarded,” they perpetuate the stereotype that people with intellectual disability are stupid or uncool.
I told that mom that she might need to better help her son understand why the word is demeaning. And then, in hopes of helping lots of people get it, I asked other parents of kids with special needs to speak their minds—and their hearts—about why the word “retard” is so, so offensive.
These are the reasons they can’t stand the word. Read. Absorb. Understand.
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Because it makes people think kids with disabilities are inferior 1 of 10"Eliminating the r-word wasn't really on my radar until my son, Nathan, was four months old. I was standing with a group of friends and associates having a business discussion when one of them, a female friend, blurted 'That's so retarded!" It cut me to the core. In the moment I couldn't quite put my finger on why, because I knew she wasn't thinking of my son when she said it. Later, as I wrestled with my hurt feelings, it occurred to me why it had upset me so: By using an accepted medical/clinical term to describe a situation she thought was ridiculous, she had indicated that my son and every other person to whom that term might reasonably be applied are ridiculous. With one casual and careless remark, she said to the world that people like my son are 'less than.'"—Andi Sligh of Bringing The Sunshine; her son, Nathan, has Down syndrome
Photo credit: Andi Sligh
Because it’s so NOT cool to use the word 2 of 10"It may seem 'cool' to use the word 'retarded' or 'tard' or 'f#@&-tard' to describe people, places or things. But how 'cool' does it make you to use the word 'retarded' when you know that, even if you're using it 'ironically,' the very people it insults may not be able to defend themselves? Not very cool. Would you look a sweet little boy like my son Gavin in the eyes and use that word? Or would you rather look into his little brother's eyes and explain that you 'didn't mean it that way' or 'it's all about free speech' or 'don't be so sensitive?' Think about it. Is it really worth it to you to defend your use of a word over defending the feelings of another human being?"—Kate Leong of Chasing Rainbows; her oldest son, Gavin, has developmental delays
Photo credit: Kate Leong
Because the word really, really hurts 3 of 10"Once, an old lady at Safeway pointed to my daughter and said 'mongoloid retard' with a question in her voice. My jaw dropped. I think she mistook my jaw on the floor for incomprehension, because her next move was the international gesture for 'stupid' or 'crazy'—the swooping circular loop alongside her head. Tears sprang to my eyes. My heart felt like a billion pounds of hurt. Shock rippled through my system—how could anyone possibly associate such ugly words and gestures with my beautiful daughter? My shock and hurt was lightly guilt-laced: I wondered if being the recipient of the old lady's words was payback because years ago, I myself casually used the word 'retard.' That moment in Safeway may or may not have actually been karmic retribution. I'll accept it as such and forgive that woman for the pain her words caused me, because I know firsthand now how easy it is to not know any better, to be ignorant of the hurt we spread by using words that wound. But this is the thing: Once you know, once you are aware of it, then to use the word makes you something else: a sadist."—Meriah Nichols of With A Little Moxie; her daughter Moxie has Down syndrome
Photo credit: Meriah Nichols
Because we don’t want our kids to be the brunt of negativity 4 of 10"My son Charlie, who's five, loves pop music and one the greatest treats for him is to listen to something like Lady Gaga while we're in the car. If he does well in therapy, I will often reward him by letting him listen to the local pop station. Imagine my dismay when the DJ declared something to be 'retarded' and she clearly didn't mean it as a compliment. I quickly changed the station, but in my mind, the damage was done. My child hears everything and I know he heard that. As he gets older, he'll learn that other people think that he carries that same negative label. I'm sure the DJ didn't mean any harm, but the word carries with it a host of emotions and issues that most people don't even realize."—Katy Monnot of Bird on the Street; her son Charlie has cerebral palsy
Photo credit: Katy Monnot
Because it’s not about censorship—it’s about decency 5 of 10"I'm not one to correct people in their grammar or poke fun if they misspell something on Facebook. But when it comes to using the r-word in my presence—especially in front of my 7 year-old son, Norrin—I have to say something. So many people toss that word out without thinking about what they are saying or about the group of individuals they are hurting. We have a close friend who uses that word constantly, and he uses it in front of Norrin. Norrin doesn't know what that word means, and I want to keep him from it as long as possible. I know my friend loves Norrin and he doesn't mean any real harm. And it was really hard for me to correct someone so close to us. I told him I don't like him using that word and now when it slips, he catches himself and quickly apologizes. It's a word so deeply engrained in our culture. But we need to keep having these uncomfortable conversations and it needs to start with our loved ones."—Lisa Quinones-Fontanez of Babble; her son, Norrin, has autism
Photo credit: Lisa Quinones-Fontanez
Because it’s a matter of dignity, too 6 of 10"The lack of contrition from politicians and sports figures and especially entertainers when they use this word is very revealing. In those worlds, the degree of offense and the need to make amends is largely determined by the power of the group being hurt. Power as defined by purchasing power, political power, the power to organize and fundraiser, the power to withdraw financial support, the power to boycott and to vote. The power to be heard. This is the fight. This is why it matters. This is why it's worth making noise. It's about acknowledging basic human dignity, and the right of every person to exist, with respect, on their own terms. It's why I'll never shut up about it."—Robert Rummel-Hudson of Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords; his daughter, Schuyler, has Congenital Bilateral Perisylvian Syndrome
Photo credit: Robert Rummel-Hudson
Because, make no mistake, it’s a slur 7 of 10"My son Leo has many challenges, but he has super-sonic hearing. And though he tends to stick to concrete matters when he speaks because speaking is hard work for him, he is an excellent listener. So if you use the word 'retard' as a slur and are around either one of us, then prepared to get schooled. Because Leo is not less of a person than you, is just as capable of being hurt by words as you—and as his mama-bear mama, I will sit you down and make you watch Jane Lynch's and Lauren Potter's Not Acceptable video until you beg for mercy. The word 'retard' hurts him, it hurts me, it just hurts. And you and your casual bigotry get no reprieve from me until you understand why.—Shannon Des Roches Rosa of The Thinking Person's Guide To Autism; her son Leo has autism
Photo credit: Shannon Des Roches Rosa
Because it deflates our spirits as parents 8 of 10"The terms developmental delays, severe speech and language delay, and autism spectrum disorder echo in our house, at my son's school and in our minds daily. While navigating a world where we continue to search for the right diagnosis and therapy programs for our boy, the word 'retarded' echoes as well. Not as loudly…but it's there. It was there when I asked our trusted therapist whether Tucker's issues could be due to a general mental handicap rather than autism and heard 'Are you asking whether he's retarded?' Retarded? No, no, that's not what I'm asking. 'Retarded' strips away my dreams for Tucker's potential. It's a word that feels hopeless."—Kristi Campbell of Finding Ninee; her son, Tucker, has developmental delays
Photo credit: Kristi Campbell
Because our kids are every bit as worthy as others 9 of 10"Even if the word's not directed at them, a special needs child or parent can hear the word being used and know the negative connotations and stereotypes the word perpetuates in society. When the word is used it makes you think of all the times someone looked at your child and essentially said they were less of a human being because of their autism. Imagine someone walking up and telling you they think your child is worthless."—J.C. Wert of J.C. Wert; his son, Eli, has autism
Photo credit: Jason Wert
Because it’s so easy to just use another word 10 of 10"My daughter, Syona, is young so we really don't know what her physical and cognitive abilities will be. But what I know for sure is that my determined little girl works harder to do things that I take for granted, every single day. And even though her body, her hands and her mouth don't always cooperate, she finds a way to live her life to the fullest. My daughter is not stupid. And the r-word is not a synonym for stupid. Words have power. So let's make decent, conscious decisions to use our words to make our world a little better."—Anchel Krishna of Today's Parent; her daughter, Syona, has cerebral palsy
Photo credit: Anchel Krishna