The "R" Word

The word "retarded" does not bother my daughter. In fact, not much of anything bothers her. Not the pain from her reoccurring ear infections. Not being told she can't have ice cream. Not skipping birthday parties and trips to the park. This is in part because she is easy-going by nature. But, it is also in part because a deletion in her genetic code makes her unable to understand much of what goes on in the world around her.

My daughter does not know that when you use the r-word you are saying that she is stupid. She does not know that you are saying that you do not think she is as worthy as a perfect child. But, even though she does not know this, I do. I know that you are judging her and hurting her. You are perpetuating the idea that individuals with disabilities do not deserve to be full members of society. You are reinforcing the idea that they do not deserve the same respect and rights accorded to others.

This makes it all too easy to turn the other way when children with intellectual disabilities are bullied at school, to cut much-needed funds for medical programs for individuals with disabilities, to slash the budget for special education programs. It also makes my daughter invisible, not a person to be considered. After all, she is not the sweet girl who has a smile for everyone, who radiates pride when her usually uncooperative body allows her to take a few unassisted steps, and who delights in examining the pages of any book she can find. When you use the r-word, she is not a cuddly girl, a person to be loved. She is just a "retard." For these reasons and many others the r-word bothers me enough for the both of us.

I know that many of you are rolling your eyes, thinking that this is a common expression and that I should lighten up. I'm sure that's what the Mom who said she was "so retarded for getting lost" on the way to a party in a room full of four-year-olds this past weekend thinks. It is also what my friend who told me she was asked "retarded questions" at a presentation last week thinks.

It is such thinking by my well-educated, liberal friends that allows the continued marginalization of individuals with disabilities. It is such thinking that leads to the D.C. government to removing the sole piece of playground equipment for children with disabilities from our local playground and that allows city council to continually delay passage of the People First Respectful Language Modernization Act that would remove the word "retarded" from official documents.

It is also such thinking that makes it acceptable for progressive organizations that actively promote equality for others to marginalize individuals with disabilities. Just last week supporters of MoveOn received an email imploring them to "Cripple the Conservative Movement." This is a stark example of how even an organization whose mission is "to build an even stronger unified voice" finds it easy to ignore, and even malign, those with disabilities. With its email, MoveOn sent the message that the worst thing that could happen to their political opponents is that they could wind up imperfect like my daughter.

Until we change this thinking, and our parlance, too many will continue to think of individuals with disabilities not as people who are valuable members of society, but as something less. Something "retarded" that can easily be shoved aside and mistreated. This is not something I can take lightly. It is not something any of us should accept.

If you value living in a diverse, inclusive society where everyone is valued, please think before you speak -- and speak up anytime you hear the r-word. We will all be better off for it.