In the last few days, an interesting discussion about the term “retard” or “retarded” has cropped up on a Facebook page I follow. In particular, this conversation has been about how, as parents, we respond to it. I’ve learned that feelings on this are as different as people are. For my part, having been in the field of special education in one capacity or another for many years, this is something that hits particularly close to home for me. As the new parent of a child with Down syndrome, it hits even closer. I’ve read about, researched, and discussed this issue more times than I can remember. I’ve spent the better part of the past 7 years as a fierce advocate for disability rights in the public school classrooms in which I teach. Arguably, some might say my master’s degree is in “retard studies.” No matter–I love the people I teach, and I love my son.
This morning, I read an excellent article about Down syndrome, and although it was not about the “r” word directly, it did include some nuanced information that certainly applies to the “retard” discussion. I was especially taken with this statement, and I made an immediate connection to the aforementioned Facebook discussion: “…it is perverse to assert that the appropriate treatment for this form of suffering is that the stigmatised rather than the stigmatisers are the people who should be made to change their fundamental identity.” I agree emphatically–perverse is an excellent way to describe the idea that the stigmatized should change rather than those doing the stigmatizing.
Earlier, I used the term “fierce” to describe my advocacy style. That might seem harsh. It might sound unnecessary. And I will tell you that for the most part, public schools are great places. But I will also tell you that disability rights are civil rights. They are human rights. And when it comes to stigmatizing my students–and now, my child–I respond fiercely if I have to. Sometimes, I’m the only advocate my students have, and nothing less than fierce will do. I see on a regular basis how deflated my students become when called “the retards.” Having Eli has, of course, made this an even more poignant issue, as he will likely be on the receiving end of that one day. Does my son have delays and challenges, including cognitive ones? Yes. Is he a “retard?” No. The same applies to my students.
Once, when a student walked by my class, pointed, and shouted, “It’s the retard class!” I invited him in and asked him if he would like to say that to their faces. This was long before Eli was born, and some of my friends might remember when I posted about this a few years ago. This young man was stunned by my reaction, but not quite as stunned as my students in first hearing his taunts. I will never forget ushering him into my classroom and telling him to look at them and call them “retards” to their faces. He froze. But my students didn’t. In what was a very proud moment for me as a teacher, they said exactly what was on their minds. They told him what they thought, how they felt–they advocated for themselves, and that is something we work so hard on in the program I teach. I know my students in a way many others in our society wouldn’t care to know them. Yes, I know what they look like in terms of percentile ranks and norm-referenced assessments. But I also know them as individuals. I spend all day with these young people. I get to know what makes them tick, what makes them who they are at their core, what makes them wonderful and lovable and amazing. And in what is perhaps one of the grandest paradoxes I’ve ever known, it’s all wrapped up, inexplicably, in what also makes them “retarded.” But they are not defined by that either. Sigh. There are so many layers.
And so, when the word “retard” is thrown around as an insult, I cringe. I shudder. I get angry. Because my students are not bad because of their disabilities. Because my son is not bad and because Down syndrome is not bad. But every time someone uses that term to put someone or something down, it implies that they are, that he is. And so many people have worked for a really long time to end the stigmatization.
In my job, I work very closely with families too. And I want to share a story related to me just a couple of days ago by a parent I really respect and look to as a mentor as I learn to navigate these waters now as a parent. This woman has a son with a disability. He is an adult now and he does very well for himself, working competitively in the community. He enjoys his job, and I know his parents are quite proud of the young man he’s become. On one particular afternoon, his mother arrived at his place of business because she needed to purchase a few items, items that would need to be loaded into her vehicle. As it happened, that was her son’s job that day. She maintained an unassuming position in the line of vehicles that day, not wanting to give away to anyone else that the employee’s mother was waiting for the same service the other patrons were there for. It was a busy day. Her son was working hard, loading cars as quickly as he could. But, inevitably, as folks in line tend to do, someone grew impatient. In this case, very impatient. A woman, tired of waiting, got out of her car, turned to the other customers (obviously unaware his mother was in line), and yelled, “I hope you’re not in a hurry. They’ve got some retarded kid working and he’s not moving very fast.”
This is why I am passionate about advocating for my students and for my son. This is why I get fierce. This is why I say there is no accounting for ignorance. This is why I say, whether or not his mother had been in line, this type of discriminatory tongue-wagging is simply not ok. It’s not ok, people. It’s not ok. Up to that point, this young man was just that–a young man doing his job. Some people might have noticed his disability, but it wasn’t about his disability. Once this woman opened her mouth, it was all about his disability–he was no longer just a young man doing his job; he was a young man with a disability doing his job. Even more than that, he was the “retarded” young man doing his job. I read a comment from another mom that really made sense–we don’t want every conversation about our child to be about our child’s disability. Exactly. That’s all the more reason for us to take a stand against discriminatory speech–it focuses so heavily on the disability when we know, without a doubt, that our kids, that my students, that persons with disabilities are so much more than their disabilities. And it is never ever ever the responsibility for those that are stigmatized to make up for the shortcomings of those doing the stigmatizing. But it is ok for us to take a stand. As parents. As teachers. As friends and allies of those with disabilities. As those who know that differently-abled doesn’t mean bad. Words can hurt or words can heal. Enough is enough. Our kids deserve better.