It’s Time to Erase the R-Word
The move to brand “retard” as derogatory and shelve the word for good has gotten a real shot in the arm from recent usage. Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to President Obama, recently used the word during a White House meeting on health-care legislation, and was forced to apologize. A consultant to Texas Gov. Rick Perry then used the word during a conference call. Then Rush Limbaugh said something “retarded.”
Special-needs people from special-needs activist groups to Sarah Palin fired back; several states have also banned or are about to vote on banning “mentally retarded” (not to mention, in some states, “idiot,” “lunatic” and “mentally deficient”) from the state’s law wording.
Extracting “retarded” from society will produce a lot more job security than most special-needs working people have today. Consider that most of my autistic son’s services come from a New York organization called AHRC. Camping, recreation, reimbursement, fighting with Albany to prevent budget cuts: Whatever Alex needs, AHRC gets it done. AHRC stands for “Association for the Help of Retarded Children,” and when it was named half a century ago by parents desperate to find services for their kids, it was a name both accurate and accepted.
”Retard” had 500 years of meaning “slowing down” before acquiring its current spin in English a little more than a century ago, in a book on “mentally-deficient children.” Googling “retard” turned up more than 19.1 million hits, including a band with the name (which somehow popped up first among the 19 million), retardedhumor.com, “retarded animal babies,” and “movie criticism for the retarded” (which on Google scores right ahead of “Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons”).
No one’s every called Alex’s “retard” to my face, except a homeless man on the subway, and he was sort of calling everyone on the train “retard,” and I think he had problems a lot worse than Alex, though as often happens when I see such a person, I wonder if once he was a “retarded” child just living with his parents.
In my most recent office, however, I heard “retard” three times in six months. Each time, the word, sometimes with the “-ed,” sometimes not, flew with complete freedom right out of a cubicle, clear and loud. I can imagine many words that would cause quite a stir, and a lawsuit, if they flew right out of cubicles. As the dad of an autistic son, I often wish the mechanism existed for such lawsuits; I wish I didn’t have to just sit there and think about how in the future people will probably be more sensitive to the feelings of others and sensitive to potential lawyers’ fees.
Excuse me: People in the special needs field keep reminding me to say “a son with autism” and not “autistic son.” I never call him “challenged” or “special,” though they tell me I could. So how long before “autism,” “challenged,” and even “special” start getting used in conversation the way “retard” now is?
If only it were a matter of just a word. A co-worker once came up to me mid-afternoon of a workday. “Do you ever go to the park over by the river to eat your lunch?” he asked. I said no. “The guys from the special school go there,” he said. “They sit on the benches and drool!”
What I could have said back to him:
1) A reiteration of what he already knew but hadn’t thought about before he spoke: his understanding of the dignity of all of us and a recognition of need, if we chose to call ourselves compassionate, to give a chance to those in our world who are most fragile.
2) Something a lot fouler than “retard.” Maybe “co-worker with assholism”?
I should have just flashed him my button that says, “Erase the ‘R’ Word!” I wear it everywhere. I bought it from AHRC.
Photo by rlv.zcache.com
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