I see a group of girls giggling.
“You’re retarded!” One says to another. More giggles.
I cringe. I take my son’s hand and walk a bit quicker. He doesn’t understand yet. Maybe he never will. But I do. I also understand that they don’t mean my son. I understand that their friend was just doing something silly. I get that they were having fun. But do they understand?
Do you understand?
You might roll your eyes now. “She’s mighty oversensitive,” you might say.
You’re right. I don’t get enough sleep, and I worry too much. I’m defensive and scared for the future. And I’m oversensitive. You see, when I hear you use the word ‘retard,’ I don’t see your friend making silly faces while wearing a ridiculous hat that you pulled off of the shelf at Target. I don’t attribute it to the illogical decision you just made, or the thing that you disagree with. I see a society who still considers my son to be inferior. I see an entire group of people who associate individuals that have intellectual disability with something unworthy. Something to laugh at. Something to call people you don’t like, people who are different.
You hear a word, but I see a world in which my son is the butt of the joke.
When you laugh at your short bus jokes, you’re laughing at my son. I know you don’t see it that way, that it’s not your intention. I know that you aren’t thinking of him when you say these things. But my son has the condition that you mock. The term you use to describe something so negative is his reality. I see his face in all of these jokes. I hear the implication that he’s lesser than your ideals, unworthy of your respect.
But he’s not.
He is charming and silly. He is determined, kind-hearted, and curious. He speaks with confidence and authority. He has big, bright, sparkly brown eyes and a devilish grin. He loves fiercely. I want you to see these qualities before you see his deficits. But our culture is conditioned to see faults before strengths.
I think we can do better. I think he deserves better. We can retrain ourselves, our society, and it begins with our words. Words can entice an entire nation to roar. They can begin friendships, and end them. They can both harm us and heal us, aggravate or soothe. Words have power. The words we speak reflect what we believe, and they influence our attitudes. When we conscientiously choose to speak with kindness and respect, our attitudes towards others will begin to change.
Words can entice an entire nation to roar. They can begin friendships, and end them. They can both harm us and heal us, aggravate or soothe. Words have power.
I want you to see intellectually disabled human beings as worthy of that kindness and respect. Worthy of your abstinence from using derogatory terms that cause very real hurt. The intellectually disabled community is a loving and accepting group with real feelings that can be hurt like yours or mine. They are a group whose affection is so often met with ridicule and mockery. My hope is that our community can look beyond a disability to observe and draw from the immeasurable strengths this group has to offer.
But before you can see it, you have to speak it. Choose to speak kindness, to be thoughtful with your words.
“Kind words are a creative force, a power that concurs in the building up of all that is good, and energy that showers blessings upon the world.”