This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at Atypical Familia (formerly of AutismWonderland).
I once asked a friend if her son knew that he has autism. “No,” she said, “We’re not that kind of family.” I left it at that because I understood what she meant.
Growing up we never talked about my sister’s intellectual disability. My sister’s original diagnosis was mental retardation and on the occasion my mother referred to it, she’d say, “She’s not retarded. She’s just a little slow.”
I can’t fault my mother for not being open about my sister’s disability. My mother’s of another generation. And my sister – who is in her mid-twenties – is quite “high-functioning.” She works part-time, she goes to the gym, she takes the train by herself.
The other day we were out for a family dinner – talking and laughing the way families do. And as my sister was telling me a story, she used the “r-word” to describe something she thought was stupid.
There are times when I hear it, I speak out against it. And there are moments when I let it go. But whenever the word is used in front of my son, I can’t let it go. I will not allow anyone to use the r-word in front of Norrin. I will tell them to use another word.
Hearing my sister use the word upset me and I couldn’t let it go. She used it in front of Norrin. She used a word that degrades herself and every individual with a disability. When I explained to her why I didn’t want her using the word, she apologized. “It’s just slang,” she said.
My sister believed it was slang because she was never taught otherwise. We never talked about the r-word at all in our house.
…however blithe the everyday practice of spicing up one’s speech with the words “retard,” “retarded” and the suffix “-tard” has become? The (presumably) unintended result is still the same. A population of people, who has never done anything to harm anyone, is circuitously targeted and suffers from a trickle-down discrimination that is very real and very painful.
My sister is a hard worker, she is a talented artist and she’s bright. She’s a young women worthy of respect, not ridicule. I wouldn’t want anyone to use the r-word in my sister’s presence and I certainly don’t want her using it.
My son Norrin doesn’t know that he has autism, he is not capable of understanding his diagnosis just yet. But we don’t whisper the word autism. One day, we will tell Norrin he is autistic. It’s not about being a certain kind of family. It’s about teaching him who he is. And teaching him to stand up for himself when he is being discriminated against.
Today is the day to Spread The Word – the annual day to raise awareness about using the r-word. I admire this online movement and those committed to taking the pledge. But awareness needs to begin at home. We need to talk about disability and the words that we use. We need to talk to them about respect for all. We need to talk to them about the weight of their words. Words are powerful weapons and like any other weapon, we need to teach our kids how to use them responsibly.
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The selections my book club chooses are often hit and miss. So I was happy to dig into what seemed like some good chick lit, This One Is Mine, about a cast of characters in LA. On my train ride home from work yesterday, I was totally immersed—until I got to page 233. There, a recently married woman who’s newly married and pregnant realizes that her husband is on the autism spectrum: “Sally had played everything right. The dating, the proposal, the pregnancy, the wedding. The one thing she had overlooked was that Jeremy was retarded. And chances were, the baby in her belly was, too.”
Ooof. I slammed the cover of my Nook closed. It didn’t matter that the character who’d had the thought was mind-boggling shallow to start with, or that the book was fiction. The word “retarded” is upsetting to me, in any context. Couldn’t the author, someone who specializes in creative writing, have come up with different, non-offensive language to describe the situation? I felt mad that I’d paid $8.89 to download the book.
“Mental retardation” used to be a medical diagnosis, but over the years the slang “retard” and “retarded” has come to be synonymous with fool, stupid, loser, someone to be loathed. As the parent of a child with intellectual disability, I’m acutely aware of the social challenges Max has to overcome in life. It’s both painful and disturbing to hear people using that word, and I regularly speak out against it. It’s not like I think eradicating the word will change Max’s life, but getting conversations going about attitudes toward people with disability can help raise the respect bar.
Other people (even parents) accuse those like me who speak out against the word of being oversensitive. I could care less. The truth is, in our culture words have meaning and yes, they can harm by perpetuating negative stereotypes about people with special needs.
Would you call the Social Security Administration too sensitive? This summer, the SSA announced it would drop the use of “mental retardation” in its listing of impairments used to evaluate claims, substituting “intellectual disability.” Are the majority of the states too sensitive? This summer, Florida became the latest state to pass a law changing the language in government forms from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability.” Would you call the President of the U.S. too sensitive? Back in 2010, he signed legislation dropping the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy. As a student at Florida International University noted, “Mental retardation is a negative term. It sounds like an insult.”
I didn’t have the heart to read the rest of This One Is Mine, so I skimmed it in order to be able to talk about it at our club meeting. Rest assured, I’ll be discussing the word that distracted and distressed me. This cause is mine, and I will keep speaking out about words that demean people with special needs—and doing whatever is within my powers to help make the world a better place for my son.
This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at AutismWonderland.
Whenever I hear anyone use the r-word, I cringe. I can feel my whole body tense up, my nostrils flare and my right eyebrow raise. If we are friends, I will point blank tell you to not use that word. Because anyone who knows me, knows my feelings about the r-word and they apologize for using it. (Once I even corrected my boss. My boss!) If we are not friends sometimes I will let it slide but all my respect for you (if there is any) is lost.
I just finished The Dirty Girls Social Club (I read it about 10 years ago and decided to reread it). In 300 pages the word ‘retard’ appears four times – 3 times as an insult and once in its ‘proper’ context. Each time it appeared, the words on the page became blurred and the only word I could see was ‘retard’ glaring at me. I wasn’t crazy about the book the first time I read it, reading it a second time, I liked it even less.
As a writer, I don’t want to censor anyone’s artistic license. But as a mother raising a son with autism – I want these insults to stop. In every single form. In speech. In writing. In comedy. IT HAS TO STOP. Because as writers, as performers, as human beings, as “superior cognitive thinkers” we should be capable of using another word. We should know that words are powerful and they need to be used responsibly. We need to think before we speak, tweet and write.
When people use the r-word or autistic as an insult it perpetuates this idea that individuals with special needs are dumb, worthless and ugly. If you’ve met anyone with autism or an intellectual disability you know that they are hard working individuals. They are kind and genuine. When you use the r-word or autistic as an insult you are robbing men, women and children with special needs of their dignity and pride.
My son has autism and he is so much smarter than any IQ test can reveal. He is a sweet boy with a good heart. And he deserves better than to be the punchline of a joke or the definition of an insult. All of our kids do.
There’s a word people love so much that when you ask them to refrain from saying it they’ll defend it and sometimes fight you on it. That word is “retard,” and when I and other parents have spoken out against it, we’ve gotten a whole lot of arguments in return. Today is a day of awareness for Spread The Word To End The Word, a campaign created by the Special Olympics to raise awareness about the rampant use of the word—and why people should rethink using it. This seems like a fine time to respond to some of the recent comments I’ve gotten from people on Facebook about using the word, and clear up misunderstandings. Here goes:
“The word ‘retarded’ is a word like any other…. It has a definition and an implication and they’re not the same thing.”
Reality check: The word “retarded” derives from the term “mental retardation.” Years ago, that was a clinical diagnosis used to describe people with intellectual disability. But words evolve and change meaning, as words tend to do, and the words “retard” and “retarded” have evolved into insults. In 2010, Congress itself replaced “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” in federal health, education and labor laws with the term “intellectual disability.” The word “retarded” has morphed into a slur—why many people are shunning the word.
“I have family members who have mental and physical disabilities and yes they were called ‘retarded’ or ‘retards’ and they learned how to recognize people who are too ignorant to get out of their own way.”
Just because the word “retarded” wasn’t a big deal when we were growing up doesn’t mean it isn’t today. Besides, back then the slang “That’s so retarded!” or “You’re such a retard!” weren’t as rampant as they are today. So many parents have explained how hurtful it is to hear their child with intellectual disability being associated with an insult. People with intellectual disability have spoken about how insulting and demeaning the word is. As this Special Olympic athlete/global messenger explained, “So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are someone that is not your kind. I want you to know that it hurts to be left out here, alone.”
“My son is Mentally Retarded, that is the proper diagnosis for his condition. I do not think we should stop using clinical terms because of the misuse of the words.”
See above—”mentally retarded” is no longer a diagnosis. In fact, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the mental health bible— is replacing the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” Even though some doctors, schools and organizations continue to use the term “mental retardation,” make no mistake, it is a defunct term.
“The way ‘retarded’ has been used for at least 20 years is as a synonym for ‘stupid.’ If you’re so sensitive about someone using a word that bothers you that you aren’t capable of understanding the intent behind it, you need to grow a thicker skin.”
Right. It’s being used as a synonym for stupid. And loved ones of people with disabilities do not want them associated with the word ‘stupid.” As for the thicker skin comment, have some heart: If a parent tells you that a word is painful, if people with intellectual disability say the word is hurtful, is it so hard to quit using the word?
“I do think people should be cautious of what and how they say things but it’s not the end of the world.”
Oh, to be sure, there are many, many more pressing issues. But this is something that very much matters to parents of kids with special needs. Our kids have so many challenges to overcome in this world; using respectful language is just one thing, one very simple thing, people can do. And so, we will continue to speak out about it. And we will continue to ask: Please, just use another word.
Here. I made this video. I hope it better helps you understand.
Last night, I Googled “Joe Flacco” to see what news would crop up. The quarterback’s contract is expiring, and there was much musing about whether it would get renewed. Already, the incident earlier in the week in which he’d described a cold-weather climate Superbowl as “retarded” was at the bottom of the list of headlines on my screen.
In recent years, with the launch of the Spread The Word To End The Word campaign and with more advocates and parents speaking out, there’s been growing awareness of how derogatory the word “retard” is toward those who have intellectual disability. People (or at the very least, their publicists) are getting that it’s a wrong word to use. Every apology from a celeb further reinforces that: Oh, look, a star quarterback is saying sorry. Oh, wow, Lady Gaga is. Note to self: Must be a bad word.
In that way, celebs and their headline-making mea culpas are doing a public service for kids like my son, Max. Thing is, this is not just about a word. Sure, on the surface it is: “retard” is an epithet, a slur, an insult. Use another word. But it’s the underlying message that’s key: What matters most here is respect. It’s about treating people with intellectual disability with equality. It’s about not looking at them and seeing differences but embracing what they bring to the world. And a simple “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone” says none of that.
I’d like to hear an apologizing celebrity explain why it’s a regrettable word choice. All Flacco said was, “It was a bad choice of words” and “I didn’t mean to offend anybody but I definitely apologize for that.” Lady Gaga’s apology: “I consider it part of my life’s work to push the boundaries of love and acceptance. My apologies for not speaking thoughtfully. To anyone that was hurt, please know it was furiously unintentional….” All LeBron James had to say was “I want to apologize for using the ‘R’ word after game three. If I offended anyone, I sincerely apologize.”
These polite apologies are the kind your elementary school might have elicited out of you if you’d done another kid wrong. Of course, some of these people must genuinely feel bad (Flacco has done good work with the local Special Olympics). Yet if they really and truly wanted to make amends and help people with intellectual disability, they could have said a little something about people with disability deserving respect, same as any human does.
Because after the dust has settled, that celebrity or notable person will go on with their fame and game. Kids like my son and others will go on living in a world that typically sees them as very different, perhaps even pathetic.
Parents, school programs, and inclusionary sports and other activities can encourage kids to accept those with different abilities and treat them as equals. There’s still not enough of those things. But what would it take for a celebrity in the hot spot to say a few thoughtful words about respect, acceptance and equality? Not much. Heck, it would make them look even better. Sincere or not, written by a publicist or not, people would take note.
Apology accepted, celebs—but also regretted. Because it could have been so much more.