I Asked Him Not to Use the R-Word. He Said I Can't Change the World.


I heard it. It wasn’t the first time my coworker had used it so nonchalantly. I froze. My heart began racing. There it was again. That word.

“Retarded.”

I was frozen. I couldn’t react. By the time I could, it was too late. My coworker had moved away and I was still too raw to approach him. So I stewed. I mulled. I replayed the moment. Imagined what I’d say if that word didn’t burn so badly.

I messaged a friend for advice and devised a plan, and then I had to put it into action. I was fearful.

The last time I confronted someone about that word it ended horribly. There was anger and cursing and tears. I knew I could stay calm. It’s been a year since my son’s birth and Down syndrome diagnosis. I could handle this.

I approached my coworker.

“Hey there. Could I speak to you for a moment?”

“Sure,” he responded.

“I’m sure you don’t mean to be hurtful or disrespectful…”

He stopped what he was doing and looked at me.

I continued, “You use the word ‘retarded’ often, and I’m offended and hurt by that word.” I hurried through. “You probably are unaware, but my son has Down syndrome and that word is hurtful to people like him with developmental disabilities and to their families. I would appreciate if you could refrain from using it.” Phew. I got it all out.

He looked shocked and confused.

His response was, “Uh… OK.”

Well, that was better than an argument.

I turned and walked away, but I didn’t feel empowered. I don’t know what I expected, but “Uh… OK” was not it.

As I reflect on the situation, I’m glad I said something. It would’ve eaten away at me had I not. I wish he received my message better. But who knows, maybe as he reflects, he will.

A woman smiling at her son, who had Down syndrome.

In the last year, I’ve learned many things, and one of them is to have a little tact. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m my son’s biggest advocate. In order to achieve acceptance for him, I need to speak up — but in a tactful and respectful way.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember everyone in the world doesn’t know what I know. They don’t live my life; they don’t understand disabilities. They don’t know how a word could cut so bad. It’s my job to teach them.

A while back, a friend responded to my reminder to not use the R-word after his seemingly insincere apology with, “Becky, you can’t change the world.”

But I can! It’ll never change it if I don’t try. When women wanted the right to vote, someone probably told them the same. Yet a group of women changed the world.

When the African American community wanted equal rights, I’m sure they were told they couldn’t change the world. But they did!

So why not me? Why not the Down syndrome community? We can change the world, one person at a time. Until people realize just how hurtful it is to use the R-word in a negative way, I will continue to educate and advocate.

I will continue to try to change the world until my last breath. I’m a Down syndrome mom; it’s in my job description.

A woman and her son.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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