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When My New Boss Kept Using the R-Word

“Oh my God! He’s such a r****d! How did he think he was going to afford this?”

After decades of full-time schooling and full-time mothering (including my three children with Down syndrome), I landed my first big job. Despite my half-century on the planet, I went into the job with my usual wide-eyed enthusiasm. After all, the job had been pitched to me as a chance to make a difference, always a favorite activity of mine.

After a few weeks of off-site training and relying heavily on my parents to do the heavy lifting with my two daughters with Down syndrome who still lived with me, I found myself with a shiny new office, new patients, darling coworkers and a prosthodontist boss who often referred to prospective patients as “r****ds” in front of me and the rest of the office staff.

I’m normally a badass when people say the “r-word.” I love to educate people so that they understand why it’s hurtful to say it. I also think it’s severely unprofessional to use derogatory language in an office setting. I had assumed the dentist in question wouldn’t want to appear unprofessional. Unfortunately, and despite years of valiant efforts by disability advocates, a 2017 Harris poll found use of the r-word remains commonplace across the United States. Also troubling, as many as half of all Americans see nothing wrong with its use.

As the mom of three children with intellectual disabilities, I didn’t quite know what to do about my work environment. How does one approach their new employer about something so serious, and within the second week of work?

I first went to my direct supervisor for advice; he promised to talk to the dentist. I felt at least somewhat supported. Well, I felt supported until the very next day when the dentist started to say the word again, realized I was standing in the room, threw a sarcastic “sorry” over her shoulder, then dramatically rolled her eyes.

From that day until my last, she undermined everything I did. Even when helping me would have helped her own business, she would undercut me, change the standards I was expected to meet, yell at me in front of coworkers etc. After four months of her behavior, I was fired despite the fact that my metrics were higher than my coworker who held the same job.

I couldn’t help but think that our inability to form a cohesive working unit began the second I indirectly called her out for using a word that has long been associated with children like mine. I know I lost my respect for her and I’m sure it showed. After all, I’ve never been great about hiding my disdain for people who have disdain for my kids.

I’m not sorry I lost the job; I hated it. I did, however, take a hard look at what had happened. I wondered what would have happened had she used similarly pejorative words but directed them at patients of a certain race, sexual orientation or nationality? I know our corporate employer would not have taken kindly to it; the guidelines are clear in our employee handbook and the office itself was very diverse within those categories. Even in my second week of work, as an out lesbian I would have immediately taken the matter to HR had my boss used a disparaging remark for anyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

What about slurs toward those with disabilities, though? That was never clear in the employee handbook, and I doubt it’s specified in many Fortune 500 companies like the one for which I worked. Even if it is stated policy, does that extend to family members like me who work for the company, or does it solely cover employees with disabilities?

Finding work as a single mom of children with disabilities is not easy in the best of circumstances. Kids like mine have medical appointments, therapies, IEP meetings and compromised immune systems that keep them out of school more often. Careers and jobs that allow that level of flexibility are real unicorns. Rarer still, perhaps, are jobs with a highly competitive ethic that also value people who need extra help, extra time and extra patience.

I’m still looking for a job, knowing I won’t find one with such a high starting salary because I’m looking for jobs in the nonprofit sector. I’m fine with that; my wide-eyed enthusiasm has been replaced with a certainty that the psychological benefits of a beloved job far outweigh the financial benefits under a hateful boss. Nonetheless, I do wonder why parents of children with disabilities have to choose?

Getty image by Aaron Amat.

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