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I'm not proud to say that it was a word I once used but I remember exactly when and where I eliminated it from my vocabulary. It was almost six years ago, on a day in June. My husband and I were sitting waiting to tour a school for our then 2-year-old son, Norrin. I was frustrated and overwhelmed with so many things.
As we were talking, I blurted out, "this whole thing is retarded." My husband shushed me like I was a child, which only added to my annoyance. "Lisa," he said, "don't use that word. Look where we are."
My husband and I were about to tour an early intervention program for special needs children. Norrin was just diagnosed with autism. He would be transported to and from school on a mini yellow bus specifically for children with special needs. It only took me seconds to realize that one day the R-word could be used to insult, humiliate and demean Norrin. My son could become the measure of an insult.
The R-word is one I hear almost daily. From friends, teachers, other parents, strangers on the street, coworkers–even my boss has used the word in front me. And whenever I hear it, it's like nails scraping against a chalkboard.
It's all over social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Celebrities and comedians tweet it without thinking twice; their tweets often going beyond their social media reach. During the 2012 elections, Ann Coulter's tweet referring to the President of the United States as a 'retard' was retweeted almost 1,000 times and was favorited more than 400 times within the span of just a few hours.
The word is so deeply ingrained in our culture and everyday vocabulary that it's thrown out casually in conversation, often without any real offense and used by people who do not understand why it's so hurtful. For the people who use it–it's just another word, without an identity behind it.
But it's offensive and it hurts millions. That six-letter, two-syllable word demeans an entire population of individuals. Individuals with intellectual, mental and other disabilities; individuals like my seven-year-old son, who would never use such a word to insult another human being. The R-word perpetuates this stereotype that individuals with special needs are stupid, ugly, worthless and less than, when in reality, individuals with any kind of disability work a thousand times harder to simply keep up with their peers.
It's not about being oversensitive or playing word police or taking the things too seriously. It's about treating others with respect, equality and dignity. These are basic qualities of life not always guaranteed to individuals with special needs simply because they are different.
Bullying is a concern for so many parents. I've already seen signs of bullying at the playground. I've seen other children walk away from Norrin or laugh when they think he's not looking. And I look to their parents, sitting along park benches oblivious to it all.
I've heard the R-word come out of the mouths of so many parents–including special needs parents and therapists. A parent cannot be against bullying and use that kind of language around their children. It sends a mixed message.
If you don't like something–refer to it as lame, silly, absurd. If someone upsets you don't use the R-word as an insult. There are so many others words to use in our vast language. Teaching your children to respect their peers–regardless of sex, age, race, creed or ability–is easy when you are willing to set the example yourself. It's that simple.