The world is just bound and determined to make me take a stand on the "R Word", isn't it?
The short story of why this came up this week is this: An old friend from high school had a comment thread going on Facebook, about politics and Osama bin Laden and all that, and another person from high school took the opportunity to insult all of us Liberals with a term cleverly derived from the word "retard". When I called her on this, a few people voiced similar opinions of distaste for the word, at which point another old friend surprised me by suggesting that the use of the term was fine in a political context, particularly by someone who had served in the armed forces in the past. "SOMEBODY here wanted to make this whole thing about him and/or his family," she said about me, "and the rest of you joined in for the stoning by making this an issue about special needs kiddos."
Here's how I responded, in the moment:
I'm sorry, I like you, but you don't get to decide who is offended by a term like "retard". You don't get to decide if that awful word and the associations that accompany it are acceptable in a public discourse, about politics or anything else. You don't get to decide if the families who face that kind of crap EVERY FUCKING DAY need to get over ourselves. You don't get to decide that context makes it okay to use a word that gets thrown around in reference to kids who can't even defend themselves as an insult to anyone. You don't get to decide that my child and tens of thousands like her are acceptable as punchlines. If you don't understand why YOU don't get to make that decision, then I simply don't know what to say. It's not about politics or freedom of speech. It's about being a goddamn decent human being.
Now, the person who made the original comment wasn't someone I'd ever been friends with in high school. Frankly, she was an idiot* back then and she has apparently committed to that state of affairs for the long haul, bless her heart. But the other person was someone for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. It was a harsh reminder that even among the good at heart, there are blind spots where disability is concerned. Or at least the use of that one loaded, terrible and stupid word.
*(Edited to add: Yes, I know. "Idiot" is kind of the same thing, from like a hundred years ago. I would no doubt be considered quite the scandalous cur in 19th century parlors and sanitoriums.)
In the past, I haven't really wanted to make much of the whole "R Word" issue. I know it means a lot to others, and I totally understand, but I thought it would be possible to take a more nuanced position. I'm a special needs parent and advocate, yes, but I'm also a writer, and the idea of "banned" terminology doesn't sit easily with me. And honestly, it's a word that over the years, I have had to work to keep from coming out of my own mouth. I'll confess to that. I wasn't offended by Tropic Thunder; on the contrary, I felt like it was satirically taking issue with movie actors who cynically use disability roles to boost their careers. And I've always felt that when someone outside the disability community uses that word, much like when white people use the "N Word", the person ultimately damaged in the eyes of the world is the user more than anyone else. Try using the word "retard" in a job interview and see where it gets you. You'd might as well wear a swastika on your head.
I wrote about this once before when it came up in regards to my daughter. Back in the spring of 2009, the school diagnostician wanted to give Schuyler another IQ test, one that would, in her opinion, give her a new and more accurate number. That number would classify Schuyler as mentally retarded.
We chose not to allow that test, and I think I can say with absolute certainty that we never will. But the conversation put something on the table, something undeniable, and once placed on the table, it never really goes away.
"In a range consistent with mental retardation." Retardation. Retarded. The "R Word".
I have a little exercise for those of you who aren't a part of the disability community. I want you to say that word. (I'm not going to call it the "R Word" any more. If you want to use this shitty word, let's own it.) I want you to say it out loud to yourself. "Retard." (If you're at work, you might want to wait until later.) See how it feels, just as an independent word without context.
Now I want you to scroll down and find a photo of Schuyler. Look at it and say it again. "Retard." Because whether or not we ever allow a therapist or a teacher to attach that label, it's one that is already being tossed her way, and has been since she was very young. So try it. Look at her and say "retard". How does the word taste in your mouth now?
Now I'd like you to google terms like "developmental disability" and "Down syndrome", and go look at some of those kids. Look into their eyes and say "retard".
In each of these scenarios, try to assign yourself a number. Imagine how many times you think any of these kids has heard the word "retard". Now line up all the people who ever said it to them and then put yourself at the back of that line. What do you want to say to the person ahead of you? What about the next person who gets in that line behind you? How long do you think that line would be for adults with developmental disabilities?
Now, just for kicks, pull out a photo of YOUR kid, or your nephew or your brother or sister. Doesn't even have to be a kid, just someone that you love fiercely and would defend with everything you are. Look into their eyes and say it. "Retard." Imagine it's not you saying it, but someone else, some other person. Maybe a stranger, maybe someone you know and even like and trust.
Now imagine that other person trying to tell you that you're being overly sensitive, you're being "PC", that they have a right to use that word however they want, that it's okay in a certain context such as politics. Imagine they're calling you or someone else a retard, but instead of hearing that as a random insult, you associate it with someone you love, and that association is, by design, intended to be devastating and intentionally using your loved one as a benchmark for extreme stupidity.
Now, repeat this exercise until you want to break something, until you want to burn down the whole world.
That's how it feels to us when you use the word "retard".
Do I sound like a one-issue guy? I know that I do. I hate that I've become that person, and I hope I won't be forever, but yeah, maybe I have. I was once a fairly active political creature. In college, I once stood outside the death house in Huntsville protesting an execution. I even worked on the Paul Simon campaign, and how many people even remember who that was? I also used to bring the funny, or at least I thought so. And I used to write a great deal about music, which is what I thought the focus of my life would always be.
But this is it. This is who I am now. Every day, I feel the rest of it being put away, being filtered out, and what is left is a father with a broken little girl. And I get that wrong, a lot, but when I get it right, I am momentarily the person I am supposed to be.
There are people in this world, and I'm actually thinking of the parties involved in this particular incident, who have single issues dominating their lives as well. Some of them have served their country in the armed forces; others have children who are doing the same, and for them politics is very personal. Their passions come from those single dominating issues, and I get that.
But that passion, or that service for that matter, it doesn't give you license to use kids like Schuyler as insults or punchlines. You have a right to call me stupid because of my beliefs, absolutely. But you don't have license to say that I am so stupid that I am on the level of a child with a developmental disability, MY child, OUR children, as if that is the worst thing I could ever fear to be. You don't get to portray yourself as a child of God while you throw the most defenseless of us under the bus to score some point in a ridiculous Facebook comment thread.
Not without me calling you on it. Not without me at least giving you the option of looking into your own heart and deciding if you like what you see.