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The R Word

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We were trying on hats at a department store counter when my childhood friend said it.

"I never know how to wear these," she said. "I'm such a fashion retard."

I was shocked. I said, "We don't use that word."

She turned red. "You're right. I am so sorry," she said.

And she was. Truly embarrassed. Not only because she is a kind person, but because I am the parent of a child with autism.

The thing is, she is about the last person I ever expected to hear it from. She is one of the smartest people I know, and I'm not talking about her Ivy League education. She's an active community volunteer. She works in soup kitchens and bakes her own bread. She's passionate about social justice, someone who thinks long and deeply about everything. She treats my son with unfailing compassion and respect, and has taught her two children to do the same.

So to hear the R word slip so automatically from her lips was as shocking as if she had taken off her clothes and danced naked in Times Square.

Recently my mother-in-law forwarded a joke that had obviously been making the rounds among her friends. It was a silly story about children who mistake words they hear, not worth repeating here. But the subject line of the email was "retarded grandparents." I took a deep breath. Then I clicked on "reply all" and wrote this message:

"For years I've received jokes like this and kept quiet, but one of my New Year's resolutions this year is to speak up, so here goes. As the parent of a developmentally disabled child, I find the use of the word "retarded" personally offensive. So-called jokes like these reinforce the discrimination and intolerance children like mine face daily. 'Retarded' is not a synonym for 'stupid.' It's time to retire the 'R' word from everyone's vocabulary."

My mother-in-law emailed back, "Actually I didn't even notice the title of the joke. But you are right about this."

Well yes, that's my point. No one notices. Not even the people who know and love my son. That's how ingrained that word is in our culture. It's a knee jerk reflex in people's vocabularies. No one else replied to my email. I imagine that many of her friends who received it probably felt sorry that my mother-in-law has a humorless prig for a daughter in law. And it's true. I am humorless when it comes to this.

People use the R word as an all purpose put down. It's hateful trash talk, the ultimate playground zinger. The Special Olympics has been campaigning aggressively against the word since the film Tropic Thunder, which introduced the term "Full Retard" to the cultural conversation, was released last year. Even President Obama has been guilty. Not of using the R word, but of viewing those with disabilities as something to joke about, when he told Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" that his poor bowling performance was like "Special Olympics or something." (Obama later apologized for his remark.) Or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman, during interviews on both CNN and "Charlie Rose", who repeatedly said that our involvement in Afghanistan "is like adopting a special needs baby." Just last week, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was quoted using the phrase "f--ing retarded," in the Wall Street Journal.

I am not the first to write about this, and I won't be the last, either. I'm not trying to be the word police. And I know that if we banish this word from everyone's vocabulary, something equally noxious will probably take its place. But the malice behind this word is palpable and ugly and heart constricting. Do you think kids with intellectual disabilities don't know they are being put down when someone calls them that word? That they don't feel the insult and disdain?

The R word has been retired by medical and social service organizations. It's time everyone else does too. This isn't about political correctness. I am asking for no less than a basic cultural shift. People need to understand that the R word is as offensive to persons with intellectual disabilities as the N word is to the African American community. The old saw "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me" is patently untrue. Words do wound.

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