What I Learned About Using the R-Word as a Dad of a Child With Down Syndrome

“It all depends on the context of the conversation.”

“It doesn’t pertain to a certain individual.”

“I would never say that about someone.”

“I don’t know why you get offended.”

“But your child isn’t that, so why do you care if people say it.”

“You used to say it all the time.”

All of these are things I have heard in the last two years and so many more “explanations” and “defenses” in response to the use of the R-word. I never cared about it for the majority of my life, I never thought about the repercussions of a word I used in daily conversations. It could have even been considered a staple of my vocabulary, and then two years ago, I was blessed with the most beautiful, talented, sweetest and smartest daughter in the world, who happens to have Down syndrome.

I said when my little girl was born that I wouldn’t stop using the word because I didn’t want that word to define her. I never looked at my daughter and thought of that word, how could I? I honestly believed that by me using that word and having a child with Down syndrome, that I would be making people less likely to use it in a descriptive manner when talking about people with cognitive delays.

I was very wrong in those assumptions.

I began to reflect on my usage of that word. I saw the way other people were using it to slander members of the community. I realized how damaging it could truly be.

I don’t know any father who wants to hear his daughter cry over things she cannot help. As adults, when we use that word, our children hear it and repeat it, as children often do. Some child will in turn find out the origins of that word, maybe out of curiosity, and then it will spread like wildfire through elementary schools. Someday, another child will say that word to my daughter, and I have tried to mentally prepare myself for that conversation, although I know I will never be truly prepared.

If you think that in this day and age of social acceptance and political correctness this won’t be a problem, then you should think again. Not far from my hometown in Eastern Kentucky, a high school girl with Down syndrome made the local news, but not for her achievements and not for her resilience. It was for a scene caused by a group of high school aged boys at a basketball game. Now we all know how competitive high schoolers can be, and how intense school rivalries are, but what happened to this girl is appalling, to say the least. She was on the dance team of the opposing high school and half way through her routine a group of boys started chanting the R-word; that girl left in tears.

Why is this socially acceptable?

Why did I hear people defend those guys?

What I am trying to say in all of this is, even though you might not mean it in any kind of harmful way, even though you might be completely innocent in your usage of the word, somewhere along the way it will cause another person pain. I wish I could have realized this sooner.

Please, help me end the word.

Getty image by Tatiana Dyuvbanova

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