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Why "Retarded" doesn't have to be a bad word


This article may upset and possibly offend some people. Before I begin please understand that is NOT my intent at all. My sole purpose in writing this is to hopefully take away some of the negative connotations and feelings associated with a word that is used (too) frequently. If it offends you, I truly am sorry, but if it helps change someone's perspective... then I am so very grateful. It took me a long time to get to where I was able to feel the way I feel and to finally be able to write this so if the R word offends and you do not see yourself as able to look at the issue from any other perspective I encourage you to stop reading. I do not want to upset or hurt anyone. But if you would like to see for just a moment how this word is seen by one child with special needs and her mother please read on and help me to take away this word's power. If you would like to share your feelings on this topic (in a thoughtful and respectful manner) even if your opinions are radically different from my own, I would love to hear them and hope you comment.



It was a few years ago when my view on a word changed dramatically and drastically. I was sitting in the pick up line at my oldest daughter's school. She goes to a school for children with special needs. The students here need an IEP to attend (Individual Education Plan) so the degree and types of special needs vary widely from Dyslexia to Downs Syndrome and everything in between and outside. As I waited for the final dismissal bell to ring, I watched as the kids attempted to play dodge ball. They clambered for the ball, tripped over their own feet, fell down laughing and had their friends help them up, only to be tagged with the ball as soon as they reached their feet. They were being silly and happy and having fun. It truly made me smile to see my child, who herself has special needs, feel so connected to these kids regardless of their conditions and included.


When the bell finally rang, she jumped in my car and she excitedly stuttered, "Did you see us playing?"


"I did. You looked like you were having a lot of fun!


"I was," she stammered, "but we aren't very good."


"It's just a game, you don't have to be good. You just have to enjoy it," I replied.


"That's good because we are all so retarded" she giggled.


For a second I considered saying something to her about using the R-word. You could say crazy, ridiculous, foolish, silly, but you chose that? I should be upset. In fact she should be offended... but she's not. I fight my instinct to correct her. It's not easy but as I think about it I decide explaining to her why it is such a bad word may be more upsetting than having her think of it as just a slang word to describe something absurd or annoying.


Let me say right now that though my daughter has a wide range of special needs, the simplest way to explain her diagnosis would be the phrase that as of several years ago was no longer an acceptable way to describe a person.


Years ago as we were going through the process of getting a diagnosis we were told so many things "Developmentally Delayed," "Intellectual Deficiency," Auditory Processing Disorder," "Sensory Processing Disorder," "Speech Impairment," "Attention Deficient," "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder," "Anxiety," "Autism Spectrum Disorder" and "Dysprexia" and that wasn't even all that we have been given!


Frustrated and confused and disheartened by so many doctors and tests, I finally asked our neurologist, "What does it all mean?!?!" and I got the most simple answer that sadly even I was able to understand with my limited medical knowledge.


I was told that my daughters problems may all be a result of what ultimately is a very low IQ that effects all aspects of her functioning. In fact, I was told that her IQ was so low that though she has Autism Spectrum Disorder she really wasn't considered autistic. I had never been so angry or upset. I never thought I'd be angry about my child not being autistic but to be told she wasn't intelligent enough to be autistic suddenly felt like a punch to the gut. I needed a name, a syndrome.. I wanted a diagnosis that would cover all of these things we have been told for years. That's when I got one.


"If this were 20 years ago your daughter would be called retarded. Mentally retarded to be more specific," he said with a factual yet sympathetic look in his eye. "But that is not a term we use anymore."


Retarded. I rolled the word around on my tongue. It was bitter and sharp and hurt. My daughter, my sweet child was not that word! She didn't learn or speak or act like other kids but she was a happy child and very loving but she was... not that word!. That nasty word was not her! That nasty word wasn't anyone! That word was awful and devastating!


A word I have called myself. A word I've said jokingly to others. That vile, disgusting word. That terrible word... suddenly helped me understand just how little these doctors understood my child. That word... would not define her. That word would no longer be used in my house or around me. And Lord help anyone who ever used that word to describe my child! I was the new champion for the movement to ban that word from the English language. Better yet... the world. Mind you this was at a time when that word was a very common part of many people's vernacular. But now I got it in a way I didn't before and it changed everything on how I saw it and would tolerate it.


Now over a decade later my daughter is saying it. She's calling herself that damn word! She is calling her friends that word! A huge piece of me wants to tell her that is not an acceptable word! We don't say that word. That word is mean, degrading, demoralizing... but she wasn't being mean and she certainly wasn't demoralized. She was being a little zany and using a word that she most assuredly had heard from her friends who were also special needs. She was using it do describe people she loved and would never hurt.


I had an internal struggle over this word and what to do. But clearly my child wasn't. Why was I taking so much offense at this word when she didn't? Sure, she may not understand the origin or past use but I think her ability to not be affected by the word was both more simple and more enlightened. She had a different experience with this word and knowledge and view.

It was me who was giving this word power! I let this stupid word dictate how I would feel. The word didn't bother her because it was a slang word to describe being silly, goofy or funny. I was the one relating the word to a condition! I, and the people who viewed this word in the way I did, were the reason this word was so nasty.

It was nasty. But not to my daughter and her friends. And this disparity in how we saw this word was (and is still) unsettling.


Words only have the power you give them.


I asked my daughter about the word. She described it as a way to call something goofy or weird. That's how her friends used it. That's how she used it. That's all it was.


My daughter, whether she realized that or not, took away this word's power. At a school full of special needs kids they were using this word to describe someone doing something funny or awkward. And I realized if a day comes when my child is called that word in a mean and hurtful way... it won't bother her anywhere near as much because this word was not a "bad word" in her vocabulary. It was just a word, just like the words silly, goofy, dumb and odd.


It was just a word. It wasn't her! It wasn't her friends. It was a word! Nothing more and it can't hurt her unless I tell her it should. It can't hurt anyone unless they let it. But it can be hurtful.


Some people who take offense at this word don't have the relationship with it that my family does. Some who take offense have very personal and valid reasons for doing so. Those who take a stand against this word do so with the best intentions at heart and are trying (as I had) to rid the world of what they see as a mean and defining derogatory word. But that word doesn't define my child. There is a reason that word isn't used in the medical field anymore. It doesn't come close to explaining a condition or describing a child who may be different but is no less special or amazing than any other child (they may even be more so).


There are organizations and movements to end the use of the word entirely. (Check out www.r-word.org) Though nice in theory, I don't think it will happen because sadly many people don't care how that word can hurt others. Google the word and see the sick offensive things that pop up. It honestly made me cry to see what some sick individuals find as funny.


But I will do my best no to let that word get under my skin. As long as it is in existence, when it comes to that word I will do my best to not care if it is being used to describe someone foolish or silly or doing something stupid. The more that word is used to describe actions and less to describe people (particularly those who have special needs) the less power it has. I know many will disagree. I know some will be offended by this opinion. I am sorry but this is my view and I think in the end best for my daughter.


Don't get me wrong... if I ever hear anyone call my kid that word in a mean or hurtful way Momma Bear step in ready to stand up for my child and every other child with special needs... but for now I'm going to let the word be just a word, just slang. It's a label and we shouldn't use it as a label. It's no way to describe a person, but if using it to describe a person's actions makes it hurt less, I can try to accept that.


So I beg of you to those who sympathize, help change the way others look at this word. Help to stop it being used but more than that... stop it from being used to describe those with special needs. If you hear or see it being used to label a person with a disability... SPEAK UP! It is not OK.


But if you hear it being said in a harmless way... maybe it is ok if you just let it go. Don't give it any more power. Do your best to not take offense. Change the word and it's meaning. This word will probably never disappear and I accept that (it doesn't mean I don't hope it stops being used all together) but it doesn't have to be a bad word if you don't let it. And I don't know if I will be ever able to use it myself as I once had but that's ok. And I don't' know if I can stop cringing when my daughter uses it but I will do my best to let it go when she does. Because it's a word and it's not who she is. Never was. Never will be.


I learn so many things from my daughter. A child who learns differently is remarkably capable of teaching others things like unconditional love, tolerance, the strength to stand up and fight when there is a true reason or cause and and the ability to take things as you want them regardless of how they are seen by others.



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