By Guest Blogger Tracy Beatty
I am the mother of a special needs child. My first born child, Evan, has Fragile X Syndrome. Fragile X is the most inherited form of intellectual disability and autism. Fragile X can cause a range of disabilities from mild learning difficulties to severe non-verbal mental impairment. To say I was blindsided by this diagnosis would be an understatement. At that moment, I was changed forever. Everything in my soul shifted. Everything from this moment would be different. I began to see the world through a whole new set of eyes. The protective eyes of a Mother who wanted fiercely to protect her child.
I can remember the exact day, the exact place, and the exact moment when this new existence smacked me in the face. I had taken Evan to the park. I was watching as he happily played in the sand box. Two boys were running nearby when I heard it. “Stop being so retarded!” followed by, “No, you are retarded.” It took my breath away. I felt like I was going to be sick. Growing up I heard those exact words a million times. It never fazed me until this moment. As I watched my sweet boy, innocently playing in the sand box, I sat down beside him and started to play. Tears began to stream down my face. And in that moment, I knew that my son belonged to the “retarded” group those boys were referring to.
People tend to use the word retarded as a synonym for dumb or stupid. The definition of the word retarded, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is “Offensive: slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development.” The phrase “mentally retarded” has been used in the past as a medical term to describe a person with disabilities. However, in 2010, Rosa’s Law was passed and the medical term “mentally retarded” was replaced with “intellectually disabled.” The law was named after nine year old Rosa Marcellino, whose brother Nick explained, “What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude towards people with disabilities.”
Suddenly, a word I grew up hearing my whole life was now off limits. It angered and hurt me every time I heard it come out of the mouth of a friend or family member. Now, it was personal. It’s not a play on words. You are talking about my son. And he is not “dumb” or “stupid.” Over the last eighteen years, I have gone from sad to angry when I hear the word retarded used to make fun of others.
Some may ask, “Is it fair to others that the word has such a horrific meaning to you? Is it fair that you expect your friends and family to erase the horrifying R word from their vocabulary?” Well, the answer is simply, “Yes.” The word retarded is used as a word to spread hate, promote exclusion, and make a group of persons with disabilities feel less than you. It is not funny in any way. Not in a meme. Not in a joke. Not at all.
Fast forward 17 years from that awful moment of awakening while sitting with Evan in the sandbox. I can say several things. One, I have developed thicker skin. Two, I have definitely learned to use those moments that occur even today to educate people on the hurt of their or their children’s use of the R-word. And lastly, I know that not all people who use the words retard or retarded are horrible people. I would guess that most of the time, they truly do not realize that what they are saying is hurtful. But in the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” That is what I hope will be a result of writing this piece today. I hope that those of you who have used this word in the past will now understand that it is degrading to many, and will choose to stop using it.
I am pleased to say that I do feel like we, as a society, are doing better. Just this week, I was listening to the Black Eyed Peas song on the radio and when the word retarded came up, it was bleeped out. I was so happy! Someone gets it. Someone out there understands what that word means to me and my son as well as thousands of others who are affected by special needs.
As a person who loves her “mentally challenged” son more than words could ever express, let me ask a favor. Could we all strive to eliminate the words “retard” and “retarded” from of our vocabulary? Parents, teach your children, and children teach your peers that this word is hurtful. Such a small thing can make a huge difference to those who have special needs, and to the people who love them. As Tim Shriver, CEO of the Special Olympics said, “Words matter. People don’t need to scoff at others to make a point. Everyone has a gift and the world would be better off if we recognized it.”
How you can help:
In February of 2009, the campaign SPREAD THE WORD TO END THE WORD, was started by two college students, Timothy Shriver and Soren Palumbo. The campaign was started to raise awareness of the hurtful effects of the word “retard(s)’ and encourage people to stop using it. You can click here to take your pledge. There are also materials and information available if you would like to bring awareness to your school or business. Let’s all work together to make these degrading words a thing of the past.
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AMEN! It is a punch to the gut the first few times, then it becomes infuriating and eventually an opportunity to educate. There are so many other words that can be used in place of that one that don’t denigrate people.
Thank you for sharing your family’s experiences with all of us. Your children are lucky to have a parent like you!
I am dumbfounded as to why people still use the “R” word and hope that it fades from our lexicon quickly.
I could not agree with you more! I cringe every time I hear that word being used. This is such a great topic and reminder for all. You have a beautiful family, and appreciate you sharing this story with other TMoM readers!