The Mighty Logo

Why I'm Thanking the People I Overheard Using the R-Word

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

A teacher is standing at the copier in a hurry. She is trying her best but time is not on her side. She is rushed because how could she have forgotten about Veterans Day? Embarrassed as another teacher looks on, she quickly says, “I know this looks retarded, but I had to have something for my kids to do.”

I overhear this comment and that knot in my stomach grows, my hands clinch and I feel anger burn deep in my soul. I hate that word. I repeat to myself over and over, Do you even know what you are saying? I start to contemplate if I should politely go and correct what she said. After all, I realize she wasn’t trying to being harmful. I understand what she was saying. But if another student walked by and heard, does that student then think it’s OK to use that word?

I pause for a second. My daughter Lydia’s sweet face appears in my head. She is not ugly or unfit. Her beautiful almond eyes twinkle with joy and the ever-so-larger bridge of her nose holds her beautiful purple glasses just so. Her tongue quickly pops out of her cute mouth to make you smile. Her blonde hair curls gently at the end of her fine hair. Her smile captures your heart and you are hooked. She is beautiful.

Thank you to the teacher in the copy room who reminded me exactly how beautiful my child is. That rushed book you were putting together was not retarded at all. That book did not have a delay and was not limited in progress, development or accomplishment (based on Merriam-Webster’s definition). That book may have been sloppy or not what you intended, but then again I am sure you did not intend to use the word retarded.

While retarded may be the diagnosis of my child, it certainly does not describe her. Thank you because you reminded me that I don’t need to get angry with that word. Actually, you allowed me to be reminded again of how beautiful my daughter is. The word cannot describe something ugly or rushed, something unintended. It simply means delayed.

To the kid in the hallway who looked at his friend and said, “That was retarded”: Your friend was acting inappropriately. He was not delayed or being held back in his process; he was just making bad choices. I am sure you did not mean to slow him down or set him back.

However, you reminded me just how proud I am of Lydia. You reminded me that she often makes good decisions. You reminded me that she is kind to most people. You reminded me how much fun she is to be around. She does not act like you or your friend. She is not obnoxious; she has respect for others.

I am sure you would have liked to use a word that better explained how your friend was acting. Maybe he was obnoxious or rude or disrespectful. Our words are extremely important, and I’m sure if you understood what you were saying, you would have chosen a word that more accurately described your friend. See, when we understand the words we use and how to use them, we don’t tend to offend as many people.

These people reminded me that the modern-day use of “retarded” does not define my daughter. The dictionary’s definition tells you something about her (she is slow or delayed), but again, it does not define her.

And the word “retarded” does not always have to make my blood boil. It can remind me of all of the great things Lydia is. It can remind me that she does not live up to the stereotypes of that word. It reminds me how capable she is. It reminds me that when I expose her to others, they are learning. She breaks down stereotypes because she shows people how very capable she is.

I am not promoting use of the word by any means, but I am trying to turn one of those situations that gives me unnecessary stress into a positive. I don’t have to explain her to anyone, and I don’t have to worry about everyone liking her. And usually when someone else is using that word, it is not to describe my child; it is usually just a poor choice in words.

Thank you, though, for using that word, for making my blood boil and for showing me that it doesn’t have to ruin my day. That word can be a reminder to me of how wonderful my child is.

Follow this journey on Loving Lydibug.

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.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: December 15, 2015
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home