This past weekend we traveled to Wenatchee for work and, like all the best jobs, I was able to bring the kids along from some fun. We were staying at our favorite hotel and it had completely slipped my mind that when making the reservations several weeks earlier, we had some difficulty getting the rooms. The Special Olympics Washington were having their 2012 Winter Games in Wenatchee that weekend and every hotel was packed.
As I was pulling into the hotel parking lot with my 20-year-old son in the passenger seat and 10-year-old daughter in the back seat, I noticed scores of athletes visiting in front of the hotel as they were waiting to check-in.
I cheerfully started telling the kids about the sporting events going on that weekend when my daughter turned to my son and said “Remember when you won the gold medal at the state Special Olympics?”
It was my son’s reply that brought my world crashing down for a few seconds.
“What! Are you trying to say that I’m a r-----?!”
I can’t even bring myself to write the word here, let alone say it. And I felt that way long before I had a child with special needs. I am not a prude by any measure when it comes to swearing but I am deeply offended by words that are meant to malign or degrade a group based on race, ethnicity, or any minority status. Words can hurt.
While that word is slang for “mental retardation,” even the term “mental retardation” is outdated. Our language evolves and we must change with it. Many words that are now considered obscene were once perfectly acceptable. “Intellectual disability” is the official term now in place of “mental retardation.”
As for my son's use of the word, I was shocked, angry, and confused. I had never heard that from any of my kids. But I was especially stunned that it was coming from him.
My son was diagnosed as Autistic when he was 2 years old and while he has progressed a great deal over the years, he is now functioning (on many levels) as about an 8 year-old. A very sweet, kind, and incredibly artistic 8 year-old. It’s a great “age” to be. He is mature enough to do many things but still retains that wide-eyed innocence that I think we all could use more of.
So I was especially bewildered by his outburst. It’s completely out of character for him to say or do anything unkind. And isn’t he aware that he is a part of that very special group?
After I regained my ability to speak, I gave him a stern lecture on the impropriety of that word. Thankfully, we were still in the car so I didn’t need to have him apologize to anyone. But I did need to make sure he understood why it was wrong to say that.
It turns out he learned the word from kids at school who were using it to insult each other. Immediately, he realized that it was offensive and promised he would not use it again.
He still resists the idea that he is different than many other people and doesn’t want to talk about it. We’ll work on that one. I think the first step has been taken in helping him realize that people with intellectual disabilities aren’t bad or wrong so there is no reason not to be proud of being one of them. As proud as he was that day 10 years ago when he stood on the platform while the music swelled as they placed the gold medal around his neck.
You can help by taking the pledge to Spread the Word to End the Word. Think about the words you choose. It makes a difference.