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Why I Don’t Want People to Apologize When They Use the R-Word in Front of Me

When I found out my son would be born with Down syndrome, I worried he would be diminished by others simply because of his diagnosis. I feared he wouldn’t be given a fair chance and dreaded the day he would be made fun of, boxed in or called “retarded.”

He’s only 3 years old, and while he has certainly been boxed in a time or two, I’m grateful no one has openly used the R-word to define him. However, I’m not naive. I anticipate he will inevitably face discrimination, which includes the very real chance he will at some point be called retarded. People can be cruel, especially when they aren’t open to or understanding of differences. I know I can’t protect him forever, and when that day comes, my only job will be to help him through it — just as I will for my daughter whenever she feels sad or misunderstood. 

I want more than anything for all of our children to grow and thrive under an umbrella of equality, acceptance and understanding. Children of today have opportunities others would have never even dreamed of, and I’m so thankful my son has been treated with love and respect in his lifetime.

I am proud of how progressive our society is becoming on the issue of disability, and I am pleased that a majority of people know labeling someone as “retarded” is derogatory, maligning and harmful.

What many people may not know, however, is that using the word retarded at all — even conversationally — can cause great damage.

People use the word all the time in passing. I hear it in music lyrics, television shows and overheard conversations. People at the grocery store casually throw it out there, and even my friends and family say it: “I’m retarded,” “That’s retarded,” “Don’t be retarded.”

Oftentimes, if a person knows me, they will immediately catch themselves: they either stumble a bit and keep going or clam up and glance in my direction. Most people are well-intentioned and mean no offense when they say the word. Some are even contrite and offer me a sincere apology over the slip.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want people to apologize for using the word retarded. Apologizing implies that there is something to be sorry for — it implies my son is retarded.

I don’t believe my son is any such thing at all. Yes, we could insert a debate here about the actual definition of the word: slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress. But words are not people, and I don’t think any of us would want to be defined by a single word, diagnosis or any other arbitrary standard against which we must be constantly measured.

Personally, I don’t want to give credence to a word that is so limiting. I don’t want to give it wings or feed into the untruth that one weighty definition holds.

What I want is for us to find a better adjective to use when we want to describe something as silly or slow or forgetful. In fact, those exact words will do the job just fine. While they are descriptors, and could each be used to delineate us all at certain points in our lives, they are not supremely defining. They don’t coat with a thick, viscous oil and label us in a way that it becomes impossible to extract ourselves.

Retarded does that.

Retarded had a specific meaning that has been antiquated and lost over time and now is just hurtful. It is a blanket label that keeps the people defined by it from reaching their fullest potential and likewise keeps those who use it from reaching theirs. It’s a word that prevents us from getting to know each other as individuals — specifically from getting to know those whom society deems a bit different. People like my son, who may be born with a diagnosis that requires specific interventions, therapies and tools, but who are — in most cases — not at all slow or limited.

I don’t want people to stop using the word retarded for me or my child. I want them to do it it because they understand that people are not defined by the circumstances in which they were born, but by what they do with those circumstances.

I want us all to acknowledge our differences, treat one another other as equals and work toward seeing the bigger picture: Together we have the ability to change the world for the better.

It doesn’t matter how fast or slow we go, we are all worth more than one word can convey. And we all have the equal desire to be included, accepted and loved.

Spread the Word to End the Word! You can head here to pledge to stop using the R-word. It’s a step toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? 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.