What’s the Word?

Advocate, Community Participation, Courage, Disability, Education, Inclusion, Inspiration, Movie Reviews, People with Disabilities, Special Education No Comments »

There is a new film released entitled “My Idiot Brother.” Following the current, intense battle against the use of the word “retarded,” I wonder if the use of this pejorative term will attract the same attention as the R word. Is idiot different from retarded?

When I first began my studies in special education, I learned the terms historically used to identify persons who had intellectual disabilities. The terms used were imbecile, idiot, and moron. After years of usage, these words became offensive and were changed to severely retarded, moderately retarded, and mildly retarded. Initially they were useful in identifying levels of disability and in planning educational programs. They also became used as hurtful words, slung at people in anger or rejection, such as “You idiot!”

See the connection? Whatever the term, as long as we remain insensitive to people who are vulnerable, those who have disabilities, and those who are unable to fight back, we will use terms in inappropriate and unkind ways.

Rather than fighting the word, let us fight the deeper problem – attitude. I think the answer is another R word: respect. In our family, we have words that we do not use. In addition to the words referred to above, we add “stupid” and “dumb.”

Billy asks me why we don’t use those words. I reply, “Because those words make people feel bad.” If we can teach that idea, we won’t have to stage battles to obliterate each objectionable word that comes along. And they will come along if we continue to believe that the word is the problem.

I, for one, will not see “My Idiot Brother.”

My Brother’s Courage

Independent Living, Parents, People with Disabilities, Siblings 11 Comments »
Billy Schulz Shovels Snow for His Mother

Billy Schulz Shovels Snow for His Mother

The bad weather we have had recently requires determination and courage and extra hard work for many of us. Billy’s service to me inspired his sister, Mary de Wit, to compose this poem for us.

My Brother’s Courage

My brother’s courage grips my heart these ways:
He concentrates on lacing tight his boots,
Assembles hat and gloves and arctic suit,
And with resolve, he steps into the haze.
His mission is to fetch the frozen news,
(This, after warming Mother’s shoulder pad,
Insuring she her phone and coffee had.)
He, cautiously, his icy way pursues.
His life is full of fear. Afraid to fall
On snow — or tumbling from a vista deck—
Offending, being dumb, bouncing a check…
Still every day he faces: smiling, tall.
From his perspective he might call us this:
Retarded, learning slowly who he is.

© 2011 Mary de Wit

Revision of the "R" Word

Advocate, Community Participation, Disability 3 Comments »

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.

A Special Message

Courage, Family Challenges 13 Comments »

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.

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