One April afternoon I was having a feel-good moment watching a mother and her adult daughter shop together. They were holding up blouses and gently teasing one another about their choices and preferences.
I was reflecting that I had almost reached that stage with my own girls, when the younger woman said, "Oh, mom, don't buy that shirt. It makes you look retarded."
The feel good moment evaporated like raindrops on hot asphalt. I'm sure if I'd confronted the shopper about her inappropriate choice of words she would have been astonished. After all, it's just a word, right? Everybody says it, right?
Words have enormous power. Words that demean and marginalize are brutal and harmful. It's difficult to write about them in a family publication. They're generally spoken of in code: the n-word, the f-word, the c-word. Today, let's focus on the r-word.
The original "My Words Matter" Pledge was published in 2004 by writer Jenna Glatzer whose brother, Paul, has Down syndrome. It's message is simple and to the point: "I pledge that I will not use the words ‘retard' or ‘retarded' to mean ‘stupid.' I understand that this is hurtful to people who have disabilities and people who love them, so I will be careful with my words. I will also try to remember to pay attention when other people use these words, and I'll ask them to stop. "
But, really, it's just a joke, right? Folks need to lighten up, grow a funny bone, don't you think? Nope, that's not what I think.
The ARC, a disability rights group, published a disturbing statement. "People with intellectual disabilities have a history of institutionalization, genocide, forced sterilization, segregation and being regarded as ‘less than human.' More than any other group, they experience record unemployment, significant physical, mental and sexual abuse and limited rights. This discrimination and victimization continues, in large part, due to antiquated, discriminatory portrayals in the media and pervasive prejudice."
And in case you need an example of pervasive prejudice, there's the case of New Hampshire State Rep. Martin Harty. He made headlines last March after he was said to have told the manager of a community mental health program that "the world is too populated" and there are "too many defective people." Asked what he meant, Harty reportedly replied, "You know the mentally ill, the retarded, people with physical disabilities and drug addictions - the defective people society would be better off without." He has since resigned his seat.
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Katy Wilson. She's a world class Special Olympian and an international ambassador for the Special Olympics program. She's traveled the world promoting the program's message of inclusion and fellowship.
In a Times interview here's what she had to say about the r-word: "I don't like it when people call me ‘retard' or ‘retarded.' It really hurts my feelings. I have Down syndrome, but I am a nice person just like other people." Much nicer than some, I'd say.
I'm not a special education teacher. I don't have a child with developmental problems. But I do have a child who volunteered in 2009 to spend a week working with special needs kids at Sonrise Camp here in Gainesville. She went for a week and stayed for the summer. She learned first hand about the daily challenges and hurdles faced by these kids and their families. She recruited her friends to come help out. She recruited her mom as a driver. One morning as we made the cross-county trip to the camp, one of her friends remarked that she didn't care for a particular TV show. It was retarded.
I don't know if my little lecture helped but I do know that young lady never used the word "retarded" again in my presence. That's a start, I suppose.
As a sad aside, Sonrise Camp has closed, the victim of a nasty economy and a precipitous drop in philanthropic giving. So there's one less resource for families who have too few to start with.
Now I wish I'd said something to that daughter who called her mother's choice of shirts "retarded." I could have pointed out that it's not a synonym for stupid or silly. I could have done it quietly and in a non accusatory way.
Next time, I will. Because words hurt and now I've taken the pledge.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.