I cannot tell you how many times I have been called retarded. Maybe a billion times. In elementary school I suppose my friends and I must have called each other retards an average of sixty times a day. Some days it could be sixty times an hour. My older sister used to do an impression of a “cripple” with a speech impediment that would have me on the floor with laughter. It was our inside joke of sorts, where she would do her impression and try to touch me while I fled for my life.
And the short bus never drove by without someone saying, “there’s your ride.”
None of us were ever offended. Not once. At least, not for any reason that was directly related to the word itself. Why? Because it was always used in humor among friends. Did we know kids who were developmentally or physically disabled? Of course we did. When we were young and cruel we would accuse each other of wanting to marry that kid.
That was in secret. We never said cruel things to his/her face or in front of adults. We knew better. And as we got older, we thankfully became too embarrassed to use an innocent in our ridicule of each other anymore. Because we grew up, and because we were kind and considerate people who understood that it was a terrible thing to do. But the word “retard” remained.
The word had no personal attachments. It was just that thing we had been saying to each other forever. Always while laughing. Always with friends. Always without thinking. Then one day I found out it was something people are no longer supposed to say. And my initial reaction was to roll my eyes.
If you are unaware of the fight to end this word, I guess you have been living under a rock or something. It’s been going on for a while. Having a special needs child, my online communities make sure I do not forget. They keep me up to date on all their emotions about the word, and current celebrities we should speak out against (or ignore) for using it. People are passionate about this cause.
And they are right.
Occasionally we encounter a person who actually uses the word retard against someone with a disability in a malicious way. The truth is, this “end the word” campaign is not about them. We are all already on the same page about those people. No need to get the message out that assholes still exist.
To be fair, this effort to eliminate the word retard from our vocabulary is aimed at those whose intentions are not cruel. It is aimed toward our friends and families who mean well, but like us have grown up with this word not meaning what we are telling them it means. I now recognize it is offensive, and so I am committed to eliminating the habit that still spits out of my mouth and surprises me once in a while. Social media keeps my brain filled with reminders. That isn’t true for everyone.
I have kind of stayed out of this debate. Not because I don’t agree with eliminating the word, but because I have so many weird feelings about the fight itself. I avoid it. I hear the word all the time. Sometimes it hangs in the air for a while in awkward silence, other times it whizzes by without notice.
I am clearly not in the fight the way others are. In fact, sometimes these “end the word” crusaders actually annoy me. They are disgusted by those who use the word. Angry. But….the people on both sides are my friends. Most of these people are good. And intent goes a long way with me.
What should it mean when a well-meaning person uses this word? Or even someone who is desperate to retain rights to it for their own (possibly misguided) reasons? Because if they intend no harm, it only means that they are wrong about something. Mistaken. Maybe uneducated. Maybe just determined to feel differently. But I don’t think it’s fair to hate them or write them off as a person.
This is the message I am hearing from my friends in the special needs community about how I should feel: If you use that word, I can’t be your friend. I cannot support anything you do creatively. I cannot laugh at your jokes- any of them. Because if you can’t see how that word offends me, that is the only thing I can see about you anymore. Even if you love me and my daughter.
I get it. I know the word hurts feelings regardless of intent. And if you are aware of this and choose to use it anyway, then you must be a bad person. Right? I just don’t feel that way. I feel like people can be wrong about one thing and still be right about a million other things. And God I hope the wrong thing is not what defines us as people. I think my responsibility isn’t to police, but to get the word out. And then focus on myself. It takes time. I didn’t change my mind overnight, so how can I expect anyone else to?
Friends, I hope you will make an attempt to eliminate a word that hurts people. But if you are already onboard with ending the word, please consider a little patience with those who just don’t get it. Allow people to be wrong, even incredibly wrong, without it meaning everything about them. Every time someone apologizes or makes an excuse for using the word- that, too, is progress. Keep educating, and most of us will catch up eventually. Or at least start figuring out when to keep our mouths shut.