There is a tremendous movement among individuals and interested groups to eliminate the words “retarded” and “retardation” from our vocabularies. The term “retard” has been designated by disability-rights advocates as hate speech and has been compared with racial, ethnic, and sexual epithets used by majority groups to target and humiliate minority groups.
A bipartisan bill enacted in the state of Maryland and recently introduced to the U. S. Senate would substitute the stigmatizing terms “mentally retarded” and “mental retardation” with the terms “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability” in federal health, education, and labor policy statutes. This change would not alter the eligibility requirements for services and supports. The Chief Executive Officer of The Arc, an organization that advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and related developmental disabilities, supports this bill. He states that “how we talk about people with disabilities is a critical step in promoting and protecting their basic civil and human rights.” Introduced as “Rosa’s Law,” this is only the first step in a lengthy process towards enactment. But it is a step.
My major stance is that the word is not the problem. Kris Kristofferson sings that “everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on, who they can feel better than anytime they please.” So if this particular word (retarded) is rejected, other words will take its place. Did you know that “retarded” replaced “moron,” imbecile” and “idiot?” The term “Down syndrome” replaced “Mongolian idiot,” and so on. The basic issue is turning the “R” word into “respect.”
How can we do that?
Read the blog about Billy’s employment. Read Embry Burrus’ comment on How Different is Different? Attitudes ARE changing. We all must be advocates, confronting people who make disparaging remarks, spreading the word that calling someone “retarded” is not acceptable. I think the best approach, however, relates to Embry’s comment. Introduce our family members and friends who have disabilities to others; see that they are involved in the community. Insist that they are respected – the better “R” word.
View Kristofferson’s Video here.
This blog was written by my daughter, Billy’s sister, Mary de Wit.
Words are venerated in my family. We attempt to use them with precision, whether writing or brainstorming or popping puns like shuttlecocks across the table at each other. They are electrically charged and elicit visceral responses, and we are sensitive to alternative word uses.
This summer, I watched five boys play baseball. Their voices were isolated and magnified by a leggy hedge and the gloaming. “Hit the ball, ree-tard!” yelled one of them. I cringed. We never said retarded in a pejorative sense at our house, where the word indicated a badge of courage, a moniker of challenge. “Retard” was the local pronunciation for no longer working your job of twenty-five years. And retarded was carefully used as a synonym for slow. Progress may be retarded, but still made.
The word “special” holds high voltage with us. If you were called special around our table, you may have had Down syndrome, or you may have received all A’s on your report card. You may have made it through a rigorous Freshman semester at the Citadel, or conducted an oxygen exchange experiment with frogs. You may have sold a million dollars’ worth of insurance in a month. Or maybe you raised four children, taught Kindergarten and commuted to a university to earn a degree. All of those things were considered special.
Our family was bound together with low-tack adhesive like masking tape. Occasionally realigned, changes left historical records in batik-like patterns after the paints spattered with each move, each project, each endeavor. It takes time. The process is sometimes retarded by circumstance. The outcome is special: a work of art.
Or so I thought. Until I re-entered the public schools after the passage of the Law for Education of Handicapped Children. I was fired up! Now I could manage my resource room without traditional, sometimes offensive, labels. Instead of labeling the children, I would specify the skills they needed and group them accordingly. Good idea.
The first memorandum I received that year asked me to identify my students as to their disabilities, such as learning disabled, mentally retarded, visually impaired, etc. The explanation stated that the labels would determine the type of funding that would be awarded. I also discovered that in working with classroom teachers and other professionals the label was necessary in developing appropriate teaching strategies. So labels are not just for jars; they are essential for delivering necessary services to children with disabilities (another label).
One way society has dealt with the issue of labels is to change them (e.g from “deaf” to “hearing impaired”). A more lasting change, one that should always be used, is called “people first.” Thus, a person with a disability might be referred to as someone with a learning disability, or a child with autism, rather than a learning disabled student or an autistic child.
I recently read an article describing a research study, in which there were two groups, one of which was referred to as “the autistics.” I also heard a nurse call an infant with Down syndrome “a Downs baby.” Such language infers that the disability defines the person rather than describing an attribute of the person. It may sound silly, but I can identify with it. I have diabetes, but don’t call me “a diabetic!” That’s not who I am.
I see myself as a mother, a teacher, and an advocate. These roles merge into a lifetime of seeking solutions and sharing ideas, dreams, and answers. In the space of more than eighty years my family has expanded to include all those whom I have taught and who have taught me. Even the advocacy role began with my children and grew to include all persons who have been disenfranchised. So it seems that all of us are family and as family have much to talk about.
This is my son Billy, who has Down syndrome. I have learned more from him than you can imagine. You can learn about our relationship and lives at grownmannow.com. (click here).
Eddy Kieffer was a student of mine at Western Carolina University. This picture was taken at his retirement party, where his merits as a special education teacher were celebrated. Click here to see Eddy’s comments.