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When People Use the R-Word

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Sticks and stones have never broken my bones but words have been known to hurt me. I am a bit of a sensitive soul. I can be brought to tears through a musical montage, an old photo or a beer commercial. While this is my truth, it is also true that I love a good laugh… even at my own expense. I can take a joke, take a jab and dole out burns like the wrong end of the marshmallow stick. I don’t usually get offended and am careful to not offend. I have, however, been at both ends of this sword and they both slice deeply.

Before Judah, I rarely used the word r*tard  or r*tarded (insert severe shudder here) and if I did, it always felt wrong. Side bar: I once slapped someone at Lourdes camp because she called a girl with disabilities “a r*tard.” I most certainly never used that word to describe someone with disabilities and I am pretty sure most of you haven’t either.

I used to say “that’s so gay.” One time, my friend, who is a lesbian, was next to me and she was openly offended. I was sincerely baffled when I uttered “don’t take it personally, I didn’t  mean it like that. I love everyone, I’m just using it to mean stupid.” She told me I was putting my foot even further into my mouth. She was right. I am embarrassed. I am sorry dear friend. I get it.

So. How can I help you get it? I know you don’t mean anything negative about my son when the word slips from your lips. I am not mad at you, but hearing it destroys me. Maybe because children like my Judah used to be addressed in a derogatory manner with that word. To think of it happening to him wrecks my being. Maybe it’s because the word is ugly or because I look at Judah and see a sweet, beautiful, mischievous boy. Am I too sensitive? Scared of stigma? Maybe it’s residual pain left over from all the what-ifs that were built around Judah’s birth.

That word crushes me. It is my kryptonite. In fact, every parent I have met in the world of disability crumbles when they hear the R-word. Some more than others. Some fight for laws, some inwardly struggle, some vote friends off their island, some hand out information packets. All suffer. And if someone is suffering — even if you don’t get why but it’s because of something you said — well then, I’m going to go ahead and assume you aren’t going to want to say that thing anymore. Most of us never intend to cause others anguish.

So, where does that leave us with all of this heavy, heavy stuff? I ask this: if you say it accidentally in my presence, please acknowledge your error. We don’t have to get all into it and make things awkward and weird. Just a simple “my bad, I’m working on that” will suffice. It’s telling in two ways, one, you value my child’s worth, and two, you are a human working on self improvement; just like me.

Now, if you are not in my presence and you say it or any other derogatory remark about any type of minority; look inward. Recognize that it makes you feel yucky inside and that the yucky feeling is your heart, gut and soul telling you it’s wrong. Then, make a conscious effort to remove the yuck… because if you’re feeling it, imagine how the targets must feel?

And, if you consistently riddle your vernacular with unkind slang for sport then I hope I never meet you.

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Originally published: January 29, 2018
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