I know what you’re probably thinking. Here we go again. Another blog post rant about something I’m supposed to be more upset about. I have to admit that that’s what I sometimes think when I see the title of a blog post. I’ve seen too many posts written with that tone not to be a little cynical about it. But that’s not what this is. I’m only sharing my unique experiences as a someone who works full-time in the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) field so you can see why I no longer use the word “retard” or any related word.
I didn’t always think this way. I guess my excuse was ignorance. I really hadn’t thought about it very much until the only job I could find after college was in the IDD field. I wish that it hadn’t taken me so long to see it, that I would have been more sympathetic in spite of my ignorance. Working in this field has absolutely opened my eyes to another world within our world, and my goal is to open your eyes to this same world, one that you’ve probably never seen up close. I didn’t plan to be here, and I might not see it as my dream job, but I have learned a lot and am a better person for having worked directly with adults with disabilities.
My job basically consists of teaching basic life and social skills, with the goal of helping individuals achieve independence. The one-on-one nature of my job ensures that there are plenty of personal conversations. It is these conversations and the relationships that have accompanied them that form the basis for how I now feel about using the “R word.” Here’s what I’ve observed and perceived about how our attitudes toward people with disabilities affect them (all names changed for privacy purposes):
One conversation in particular sticks out to me, and perfectly illustrates how the “R word” affects people with disabilities. Allow me to introduce Mark, who is about 30 years old, has a keen memory and lives with his mother. He hopes to move out on his own someday, and has the potential to do it within a couple years. One day when we were talking, the topic of the “R word” came up.
His face grew serious, and it was clear that what he was thinking about was disturbing to him. “When I was in high school,” he said, “there was a boy who called me that.” About 15 years later and the pain of the insult was still evident on his face and in his voice. All it took was one word, and the stigma behind it caused lasting emotional damage. We’ve all heard the misguided saying about sticks and stones, and this is just one example of how untrue it really is.
Whether it’s the R word specifically that’s used, there’s a larger point. It’s clear to me that many of the people I work with feel that they are “retards.” What I mean is that they either have resigned to believing that there’s something wrong with themselves or are wrestling with their limitations. Sometimes when I’m trying to teach something fairly basic and the individual is struggling to understand it, their perception of their challenges comes to the surface. Joe and Brandon, for example, have both said something to me like “I’m sorry I’m a little slow, I’m just retarded.” I have no doubt that being referred to as an “R word” much of their lives had something to do with this lack of self-esteem.
You see, many people with disabilities already have a perception that their challenges are more difficult than most other people’s challenges without me labeling them with offensive terms. I can tell you from seeing individuals grappling with this idea that it isn’t easy, as you might imagine. So when Mark asked, “Do you think I’ll ever grow out of my disability?” or Greg said, “I wish I didn’t have autism, and I wish I didn’t have bipolar!” or Ben told me that he thinks that his job search is unsuccessful because no one wants to hire someone with Down’s Syndrome, I didn’t always know quite what to say, but it undoubtedly broke my heart.
The Golden Rule
The “R word” may or may not be scientifically accurate in describing this group of people, but that is totally irrelevant to me. The word has become a slur used to demean the people it describes. What is worse is to use it as a euphemism for “stupid” or “annoying.” Lately it seems to me that everyone is offended by something, and in some ways maybe our society could use thicker skin, but I believe that that doesn’t apply here. If a person or a group of people says that a certain term is hurtful and offensive to them, I’m inclined to believe them, especially when it’s a group that has historically been treated as poorly as the disabilities community has. After all, if it were me, wouldn’t I want to be believed?