Often when my son Charlie and I are walking on a certain street where there’s businesses and gas stations and the like, a car zooms by and something is shouted out the window amid raucous laughter. It’s often hard to hear what is being yelled at us but I wouldn’t be surprised if at times it’s been that word, the “r-word.”
Though Charlie has no sign of any physical disability, his being “different” — he’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum — is signaled by his being tall as an adult (he’s just turned 14) but only saying one or two words, or holding his iPad close to his ear as it blares out Disney songs. Or, not saying any words at all but humming or making what sounds like weird noises to others.
Perhaps the shouters/hecklers think he’s “too dumb” — too “r-word” — to know he’s being yelled at. For sure, Charlie does, though his response (crying and being visibly agitated in his body language) tends to occur after a lag.
Such incidents are distressing. Charlie has as much a right to walk in the neighborhood listening to whatever he wants as anyone else. It is heartening to know that there’s a campaign going on to end the use of the r-word and hateful, disrespectful language towards individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Glee star Jane Lynch is part of the campaign to end the r-word as the Huffington Post notes:
Lynch stars with her “Glee” cast mate Lauren Potter in a jarring new PSA against the derisive use of the words “retard” and “retarded” in everyday language and to encourage inclusion of those with intellectual disabilities. By comparing the word’s derisive connotations with that of racial slurs, the campaign, spearheaded by a number of entertainment executives, urges the silencing of the term in its derisive context.
In working to stop using the r-word, it pays to note a little history about the use of words to describe those with intellectual disabilities. Not too long ago, using the term “retarded” was considered progressive; in the 1950s, the terms “moron” and “imbecile” were considered acceptable, hard as it may be to believe such. That is, the terms we use to describe individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have changed and will continue to change. The meanings of words aren’t set in stone, but are altered as we use them in new and different ways.
Someday we may find “intellectual disability” and “developmental disability” terms we cringe to hear just as we now do when we hear “feeble-minded,” “cretin,” “idiot,” and, yes, “retard.” What we need to change most of all is not simply the words we use to talk about and address Charlie and others with disabilities, but how we perceive and interact them and their different strengths and many, very many, abilities.
Please take a moment to sign this petition to end the use of the r-word and discriminatory language about individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Photo by the author.