The R Word

Today I’ve seen a lot of articles on various news and social media outlets about something called “Spread the Word to End the Word” or “Ban the R-Word Day.” The “r” word to which these articles are referring is “retarded.” Advocates for those with special needs have decided that a word is responsible for demeaning these individuals. They are calling for people to sign a petition promising to support the “elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech.”

This makes me uncomfortable. Banning words will not end the problem of ignorant people making fun of or otherwise mistreating those with intellectual disabilities. Instead of banning one r-word, why not put emphasis on another. Respect. Respect for those who are different, respect for those who need help, respect for the wonderful qualities people do have instead of focusing on those they may lack.

It’s been years since I’ve thought as any person or child as “retarded.” I think of them as Colby, who is autistic, but has recently learned to speak a few words. Or Sarah, a four-year-old with Down Syndrome who has a beautiful smile and a big brother and little sister who love her to pieces. And Robert, a young man with cerebral palsy who is an usher at church almost every weekend.

When I use the word “retarded,” I may absolutely mean it to be derogatory. For instance, the retard in front of me in traffic who can’t figure out to GO on a green right turn arrow. Or how retarded my dog is when she drops her ball off the side of the couch, puts her mug down to look at it, and then falls off face first right onto her nose. And the retarded doctors who have been treating my grandma for a bacterial infection for two months, but only now bothered to culture it.

In no way, shape or form, by using the r-word in those instances, do I mean any disrespect to anyone other than the specific people whose particular choices or actions happened to frustrate me at the time.

Retard simply means “to make slow; to delay the development or progress (of an action, process, etc.); to hinder or impede.” More often than not, when I see the word, I think back to my high school band days, when a piece of sheet music was marked rit. The abbreviation for the Italian word “ritardando,” an indication to gradually reduce the tempo of the music. That was always a welcome notation for me because I wasn’t a very adept instrumentalist, and it was easier for me to play slower.

Ritardando is a fitting idea. It’s one way that those of us who were fortunate enough to be born without limitations, can learn from those who struggle with learning or other daily activities. They make us slow down. And be patient. And stop to think. Retard our own constant motion long enough to recognize someone else’s accomplishment that might just be routine for us. And appreciate their abundant kindness and gratitude when we pause long enough to make them feel like they belong.

Abolishing a word, like banning a book, serves no purpose other than giving it even more power. Similar to books with language or themes with which we are uncomfortable, the way to come to terms with the information, particularly with children, is to educate them about it, provide context, and encourage discussion. All eminently more effective tools than simply vowing to erase a word from the vernacular.

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2012

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