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When I Realized How Hurtful This Word Can Be

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I will never forget the day I heard that awful word blurted out in front of me. I was out with my husband when we overheard two women talking in a store. One asked the other if she saw that girl who looks “retarded,” as she made an obscene gesture and brought her hands to her chest. I was so angry with her.

I admit, I often found myself using “retarded,” or the “R-word“, before my son was diagnosed with Down syndrome over a year ago. I used it to describe a lot of situations and I didn’t think twice about it. Knowing what I do today, I am here to tell you just how offensive that word is to my son, and everyone else with an intellectual disability.

The word “retarded” is hateful, offensive, and spreads hurt.

Those women knew nothing about the person they were talking about. They judged her by the way she looked, how she sounded and acted, and what they learned from TV. Too many people are taught to use the word as a form of insult, a dig at someone’s intelligence and “normalcy.”

The situation made me realize that someone might try to use that word to describe my son one day. I found myself sitting there wondering, “How can we ever expect our children not to use the word, if they are hearing us use it ourselves?” I realize now that I should have stood up and said something when I heard them degrading that innocent woman. I was so upset, I couldn’t get out a single word or string together my thoughts. Part of me also thought I would end up in handcuffs if I got started, and we all know that would definitely not set a good example for our children.

Some might not know this, but the “R-word” was used to describe people with intellectual disabilities by medical professionals. However, in 2013 even the medical world revised the terminology.  Sadly, it will always be associated with people who have intellectual disabilities due to its history. That being said, please remember that any use of the word, even when used as slang and not intended to be offensive, is hurtful.

There are so many ways we can educate people when we hear them using the “R-word.” Here are three ways I taught my daughter and want to share with you:

1. Try asking them to think of other words they can use instead.

2. Ask them if they know the definition of the word. Most of the time people don’t, because if they did, I can assure you they wouldn’t be blurting it out left and right.

3. Explain why the word is so hurtful towards people with intellectual disabilities, and really put into perspective why it’s unacceptable to use.

Spread The Word To End The Word  is a national campaign to encourage people to pledge to stop using the “R-word.” They even have a national day each year dedicated to spreading awareness. These advocates believe the use of the word “retard(ed)” in everyday speech is hurtful and dehumanizing. They advocate for the use of language that respects the dignity of people with disabilities.

So the next time you are thinking about using the “R-word” to describe your friend’s outfit or the funny face they made, I want you to remember… it’s offending my son, and every other person with an intellectual disability in the process.

Originally published: August 3, 2016
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