Saturday, January 2, 2010

Down Syndrome Awareness -- The Dreaded "R" Word

Living in the melting pot that is New York's metropolitan area, I'm exposed daily to people of different cultures, races, religions and abilities. As such, I began to believe that politically correct language was simply a byproduct of this somewhat unique integrated environment. I had JUST commented to the Sarge the other day that I have not actually heard the dreaded "R" word used in any level of conversation in a very long time. Murphy's Law dictates that I would suddenly hear it used in short order... and since I live a very Murphy's Law life, so it was.

On New Year's Day I opened Facebook to wish my FB friends and family a Happy New Year when someone's updated status shocked me out of my delusional world and into reality. An acquaintance unknowingly let that slur rip... in WRITING, on FACEBOOK for all the world to see. I'm not an easy person to shock. I do believe I've seen and heard enough in my lifetime to have blunted any shock effect for the most part. But this sort of caught me off-guard... I guess I'd let my guard down.

The FB reference was made regarding a trip to the supermarket where the grocery baggers who put only 2 items in each bag must be "retarded".


Not only am I certain that the instructions for all employees at my supermarket is to pack lightly lest a customer get frustrated or break open a too-heavily-packed bag, but, to my utmost approval, there are also folks with intellectual and/or physical disabilities employed there. Her comment struck me as tantamount to standing in front of an African American and outright calling them the "N" word. I would no sooner use that word than I would the "R" word in any form of conversation with anyone.

But what to do? How to address this? You know I just can't let it go. It's another opportunity for me to clear a more peaceful -- less hurtful -- path for my boys and for others who may be less able or less inclined to stand up for themselves. If the speaker meant no harm but rather spoke out of ignorance with regards to the disparaging use and meaning of the word, then public recourse would embarrass her... My intent was not to embarrass but to educate. So....

I opted for a private message outlining the current movement to do away with the use of the "R"word since it's meaning has come to be derogatory for individuals whose intelligence may not jibe with society's acceptable measures of intellectual ability... never mind that it's also extraordinary hurtful for their loved ones as well. It was an awkward message to write because this is not someone with whom I am well acquainted and because the comment was not specifically directed to me but, in general, to any of us out there in FB land. And, oddly, she is someone I met in the special education arena. Someone who knows my children have Down syndrome. And someone whose own child has a language delay. My message was kind but succinct. Still, I'm not sure I'll ever hear back from her. I'm not sure that she won't be offended by my privately pointing out her socially unacceptable gaff. But, I hope and pray that she thinks twice before using the term again.

Lisa at Finnian's Journey has also been writing on this topic recently having encountered a well-respected professional in the education arena who used the "R" word excessively and inappropriately in conversation with her and her husband. She wrote what I think is a brilliant synopsis of the term's history and its appropriate versus inappropriate forms and use. With her permission, I've reprinted an excerpt here to help others better understand our -- mine, Lisa's and other parent's of children with special needs -- point of view:


"Regarding the terms "retarded" and "retard":

"Retarded" does have a clinical context. It originated as a medical diagnosis, and "mentally retarded" is still appropriately used in that manner, although it is falling out of favor, simply because over the years it has evolved into a general insult used will-nilly. It's sort of lost its original clinical meaning and is now widely used to disparage people. These days, the terms "developmentally delayed," intellectual disability," and "cognitive impairment" are more appreciated by family members and loved one of persons who have such a diagnoses. however, the terms "retarded" and "mentally retarded" technically still have appropriate places in a clinical context.

"Retard" as a noun -- as in, referring to a person as "a retard" -- has never had an appropriate context. It originated as a slur, and it remains a slur. It's a hate word. just like "nigger," "dyke," "faggot," "spic," and the like, it is word that disparages, demoralizes, dehumanizes, marginalizes, and just plain hurts. There is no proper way to use it."


Thanks Lisa for putting it in writing so well. I think I'll just send/say that the next time I encounter the word... which, hopefully, won't be for another long while!

Words can and do hurt. Please be conscientious and choose your words carefully. You never know who you're talking to and how such an outdated and inappropriate descriptor will be received. I am not one of those people waiting to be insulted... but I know and feel deeply the demeaning result of an insult when I hear one.


  1. Lisa did really put it into writing so well. Sorry you were put into an uncomfortable position.

  2. Ugh, I babysit for an awesome family and I have heard the wife say it before. I can't figure out how to respond. Also, NYC? Maybe we will run into each other!

  3. Thank you for this post. As a professor in special education I am really strong about person first and respectful language. I first have my students read a short piece on a blog for kids about disabilities on language. ( in case you are interested) As future special ed teachers, school psychs and counselors I want them to model appropriate language and teach others about respectful language. Then I charge them 25 cents if they use incorrect language. A "person with an intellectual or cognitive disability" is okay if necessary to the conversation. Otherwise "person" will do. We also have a session discussing what to do when in a setting when someone (perhaps their supervisor!) uses inappropriate terms or language. I want them to have the skills to speak up, change culture. I am very impressed that you wrote to the FB person. Great courage! Never easy. I will share this blog with my students! Thank you! (Sorry I went on so long...this is a subject close to my heart! Don't get me started about "crazy" or "mentally insane"....!)