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When The Mighty Published an Article That Used the R-Word

The following post was written by Hillary Savoie and Melanie Gomez, two Mighty contributors, in response to an article on The Mighty where the R-word was written out.

Hillary Savoie:

As the mother of a young child who is developmentally delayed, I have a visceral reaction when I see or hear the R-word. It makes me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me want to launch into a diatribe about why the words we use matter — and why, to me, the use of the R-word isn’t acceptable.

I do recognize that some people don’t completely understand the depths of why this word is offensive, but there are increasingly fewer and fewer reasons for a person to claim ignorance on this subject: Rosa’s Law was passed in 2010, beginning the striking of “mental retardation” as an acceptable medical term; the successful campaign Spread the Word to End the Word” has been educating the public about why the R-word is unacceptable; John Franklin Stephens, a Global Messenger from the Special Olympics who also has Down Syndrome, had a viral response to Ann Coulter’s repeated use of the term in 2012.

Despite this I still see the word glaring back at me from the New York State documents associated with my daughter’s yearly Medicaid waiver renewal. I see it in posts and comments on Facebook. I see it in the medical articles I read. I hear it yelled between kids in the grocery store. I hear it tossed casually back and forth between adults in the work place. 

I know to expect it in those places. Sometimes I speak up. And sometimes I let it slide, because sometimes it isn’t worth it.

However, there are places I don’t expect to see the word used carelessly. And The Mighty is one of those places.

So when I read this article on The Mighty, I found myself feeling quite shocked and, frankly, angered, because I felt the man in the article was defining himself and his disability at the expense of those he sees as “retarded.” And while I understood that he might have the right to counter assumptions made of him in the ways he sees fit, I felt it wasn’t fair for The Mighty to make the editorial decision to share them and, indirectly, condone them. 

So I mentioned it in our discussion group for regular Mighty contributors. And quite the discussion ensued. At first I was afraid that I, as I’ve been known to do, spoke up a wee bit, let’s say, passionately? Assertively? But then fellow regular contributor Melanie Gomez and I had what I felt was a truly sincere exchange that left each of us looking at the situation somewhat differently. 

It seemed like an important discussion to share, as it represents a thoughtful exchange on the subtle nuances of how language and self-definition are fluid and meaningful in different ways to different people…because where I saw offense, she saw hope:

Melanie Gomez: I love that the Mighty allows people with challenges to describe themselves – or in this case describe what people call them. The moment we judge this man for being inappropriate in how he communicates his feelings, is the moment we go astray of the purpose of this community. Disabilities often ARE politically incorrect. My son has agenesis of the corpus callosum as well. I was thrilled to see a man who has this condition be able to express himself so well!! My son’s medical diagnosis includes the words “severe mental retardation” so I believe that it is or was at some point a medical term. It’s now used in a derogatory manner, and I inferred from this article that’s what the author was alluding to. But even if not, I feel like The Mighty is where he should be safe and unjudged. I know you’re judging the word, and not him. But don’t know that he would make that distinction.

Hillary Savoie: I am SO happy you responded to this post. I felt really uncertain about posting it…but there was something about the article that made me very uncomfortable. I think these are exactly the kind of conversations that we all should be having around such things. Since my daughter is so young (and non-verbal) I struggle to speak up in ways that I think are appropriate *for* her–and, admittedly, I am not always going to be on the money so to speak. “Mentally retarded” has been struck federally as a medical term since 2010. So, for me, the only reason to use the R-word is when discussing the use of the term (like in this discussion). Some doctors still use it, unfortunately, and I understand that this man uses it to define what he thinks other people think of him, and what he doesn’t think he is. I do TOTALLY understand what you are saying, that it is wonderful that he can express himself. Wonderful that The Mighty helps share his story. But I do think there are ways to have editorial guidelines that are respectful of both his right to respect to express himself and also of the rights of others to not be subjected to offensive terminology (or defined hurtfully through what someone else is or isn’t). For instance I think that there is a way to appropriately use editorial rights to say they don’t publish things with that word because it can be offense and when it is used by someone within the community or to prove some kind of point they can substitute the “R-word” in order to not condone the language…

Melanie Gomez:  I agree the R-word could be a great substitute here. TheMighty has added editorially to a post of mine in the past to adjust for more recent data than I had, so perhaps that could’ve been done on this post. You bring up a good point. I must confess that the word itself isn’t offensive to me.  I’m from the previous era when it was used by doctors (my son is 15). I knew what the verb “to retard” actually meant when used in the sense of a delay (think flame-retardant pajamas). I’m only bothered when it is used as a derogatory word. You’ve opened my eyes to the other side a bit more. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss it <smile emoticon>.

Hillary Savoie: Thank you for discussing this so thoughtfully and openly. It means so much to me to be able to discuss these sorts of things…I know we all have our perspectives based on personal experiences. And this one just really stung me…I spent my pre-Esmé life studying communication and rhetoric in storytelling…which was oddly good preparation for talking about disability. Defining acceptable language within a varied community is difficult. Defining acceptable language within a community that has been traditionally mistreated is extremely difficult. I do think there are ways to keep the conversation going and evolving…and to make an effort to protect all people involved. I wrote something last year about my thoughts on the R-word, if you’d like to read it. But I’ll cut and paste the important (for our discussion) part here: “It shouldn’t matter whether the R-word is used around me or another mother of a child with a disability or only quietly in one’s home. Using it at all suggests that it is “ok” in certain circumstances, i.e. when no one is there to be offended. But it is fundamentally offensive no matter what the circumstances as it degrades and dehumanizes a group of people who are more likely than most to be mistreated, who are vulnerable, who have a history of being degraded and dehumanized.

“And what that means is that we all have to stand up against words like the R-word when we hear them–perhaps especially much if it doesn’t affect us directly because instead of the lesson being: “Don’t use this word, you never know who you might offend,” the lesson becomes, “You degrade and insult us all when you use words that degrade and insult others, period.”

Melanie Gomez:

Bearing the title “Defender of Another” often leads down an unfamiliar path. As moms of special kids, both Hillary and I share this unique position. I often feel as though I’m on a tightrope, holding my breath to neither go over to the side that infringes on others, nor to the side that would encroach upon my own child’s freedoms. I’ll admit that if I’m going to teeter, it won’t be on the latter side but the former.

Hillary reacted swiftly to the original article with the R-word because she felt compelled to defend her child.

I reacted swiftly when I saw her comment because I felt compelled to defend the author. I see extreme value in both sides.

When my baby was only a few months old, experts gave me this word. Neurologists and geneticists from a top children’s hospital handed me the word as a means to understand and explain the challenges my son would face. As defined by Webster, the word told me to expect “subaverage intellectual ability equivalent to or less than an IQ of 70 that is accompanied by significant deficits in abilities (as in communication or self-care) necessary for independent daily functioning, is present from birth or infancy, and is manifested especially by delayed or abnormal development, by learning difficulties, and by problems in social adjustment.” It’s not a pretty diagnosis.

Here’s why I think my response was so instinctual and perhaps why more of the older individuals affected by the same condition might not be as hot on the bandwagon to abolish the word as younger folks. When the R-word in all of its intents and purposes is rebuffed and disallowed to be uttered under any circumstance, there’s a small part of me that feels as though my son’s diagnosis is being discarded. His intellectual function has now been deemed politically incorrect. He’s being assigned a euphemism because his actual diagnosis is too awful to be spoken of. I’m not saying that is true — please understand I get it — I’m just explaining the initial response. 

Who is right? If the R-word, used in medical or institutional language does not offend me, does that mean it’s OK? If a man with an intellectual disability uses that word, is he exempt? By the end of my conversation with Hillary, I concluded that a word which my fellow sojourner finds reprehensible at all times, must then be unacceptable to me. I realize that she and her child are on my side of the tightrope; we’re not at odds, but by each other’s side. That’s what the Mighty community is all about.

Editor’s Note: In response to Hillary and Melanie’s discussion on our article, The Mighty decided that when the R-word is used on our site, we’ll add language to that post directing users to the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. If we ever use language you’re uncomfortable with or offended by, please never hesitate to reach out to us at [email protected] or me personally at [email protected]
— Megan Griffo, Editor-in-Chief of The Mighty