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When I Confronted My Lunch Date Over Using the R-Word

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As a 21-year-old college student, I hear the words “retard” and “retarded” get tossed around frequently and nonchalantly.

“Dude, you’re so retarded.”

“Are you kidding me? Stop being such a retard.”

It’s like I have selective hearing to this nasty word. In a crowded room or when I’m walking to class, above the chatter and the din, I’m always able to pick it out of a conversation. If I heard someone say it in passing, I tended to keep my mouth clamped shut. Despite the dropping feeling I’d get in the pit of my stomach and the climb I’d feel in my blood pressure, I would just take a deep breath and let it go.

“Leave it be, Kayla. You’re not going to change anything,” the voice in my head said.

But why? Why shouldn’t I speak up for a population I dedicate my life to helping, to loving, to advocating for?

I came to this realization and I started addressing the wretched word in a passive manner.

“Hey, maybe you shouldn’t say that word? It’s not polite.”

I would get responses that were rude and forceful. I’d always be the one who ended up apologizing and walking away from the situation feeling defeated.

“Leave it be, Kayla. You’re not going to change anything.”

I would rehearse in my head what I would say if I were faced with the word again. But every time I had an opportunity to advocate, I would cower and take the easy way out.

“Hey, maybe you shouldn’t say that word? It’s not polite.”

I once got this response: “Why not? It’s a medical diagnosis.”

Kayla and her friend smiling

As frustrated as I became, that person was right. At one point, “mental retardation” was a medical diagnosis. For a hot minute, I thought I was being too sensitive to the use of the word. I started to let the users of the R-word wear me down.

“Leave it be, Kayla. You’re not going to change anything.”

Until one day.

I was out to lunch with a boy I was interested in. Things were going very well, and I really liked him. The conversation was flowing, and I started to open up, joke around and laugh. And then he said it: “That’s so retarded.”

I lost my appetite. The mood of the conversation shifted immediately. There was no hiding my emotions based on the deep red pigment of my face: anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment.

“Don’t let this one slide, Kayla. Say something,” the voice in my head said.

I sat up tall and took a deep breath. “I know we just met, and you don’t know too much about me or what I do. But I have a lot of friends who have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability. By you saying that word, you’re offending them and myself.”

And he rebutted with my least favorite response: “But that’s a medical diagnosis.”

But there was no “leaving it be” this time. He was making excuses and defending his use of that word. There were no stopping the words flowing from my mouth.

“Yes, you’re right. The diagnosis of ‘mental retardation’ was relevant in the past. And I understand the term is no longer looked upon as a politically correct diagnosis. However, that is not the frustration I have with you using the word. By using a medical term given to those with an intellectual disability to describe something as being ‘stupid,’ ‘uncool,’ etc., you are saying the people I love are all of those things. And they’re the farthest thing away from all of those negative words; they’re athletes, artists, dancers, students, friends and activists. They’re beautiful. If you took the time to get to know some of these individuals, you might feel differently about using the word in the future. I’m not going to sit here and tell you what to say; that’s your own prerogative. But I will tell you saying that word is wrong. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. And if you choose to use that word the way you do, I will not sit here and listen to my friends, who have come so far in the eyes of society, be set back 40 years. If you care about me and my feelings, please don’t use that word in front of me. It’s offensive and insincere. My friends deserve your respect.”

What did I just say?

What just came out of my mouth?

I thought for sure I had scared him away. I was convinced I had just started World War III. I felt a rebuttal coming on from his end.

But it didn’t. His face looked sad and defeated.

He said, “Wow. I never actually looked at it like that. You’re right, it isn’t right to use that word. Thank you for telling me, and I’m sorry for offending you and your friends.”

He and I spent the rest of the afternoon talking about some of my friends. I showed him pictures and videos of them I had on my phone as I gushed about their accomplishments and how much potential they have.

In the year and a half we dated after this, he never used the word once. He met some of my friends and became close to them. He even advocated to stop the use of the word when his friends would use it.

“I can’t believe I made a difference,” I thought to myself.

Use your words. Speak up for your friends, family members and students who can’t advocate for themselves. Even if you don’t think saying something will have an impact, it will. The person may get defensive, maybe even mean, and you may not get the response you were hoping for. That’s OK. You can walk away knowing that you made an attempt to stop the use of this senseless word.

Emma, Danny, Lia, Mary Rose, Dylan, Jamie, Jodi, Jack, Gary, Nathan, Chris, Vicky and all of my other friends deserve your respect; they’ve earned it. The world is a brighter place because of their presence. Don’t limit their potential by using the R-word.

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.

Originally published: September 25, 2015
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