Language is powerful. What we say and how we say it has impact. I love someone with a disability. I know how language can be respectful and uplifting and how it can degrade and demean. I have done my research and made evidence-based arguments. I should be able to discuss this calmly with you. I shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. I know I’m right. But I also know this conversation can be a wedge. It can make people feel embarrassed and uncomfortable – defensive even. I don’t want to make people feel ashamed and I don’t want an apology. I know you mean well and have probably never thought about it before. I’m not judging you, but I want you to understand how the words you choose matter to me and to Evelyn and other families like ours.
When you say, “I felt like a retard!” or “That movie was so retarded!” it hurts me. Do you know what that word means? That word was a medical diagnosis. Twenty years ago, Evelyn’s medical file would have read “mentally retarded.” And that would have been okay. Because what that word used to mean is “cognitively impaired.” Evelyn has cognitive impairment – it’s a fact. But now, doctors don’t use that term anymore. Because people started saying it like it was a foul word. Like you just did. It’s an insult. It’s derogatory language. Retard has been reappropriated in the worst kind of way.
Made a stupid choice? You’re a retard. Something is ridiculous? It’s retarded. The insult is being like my daughter. Think for a minute what that feels like to me. When you say it, I never see it coming. It’s like an unexpected slap in the face. I feel my cheeks get hot. I want the ground to open up and swallow me, because you think that being like my daughter is terrible. You said it to demean someone or something. I think about what it will feel like to Evelyn when she is old enough to understand that you choose to express your contempt and disrespect for someone or something by comparing it to her and my heart breaks for her. I want to explain this to you, but I don’t know how.
If I do work up the nerve to say this to you, you might get defensive. You might justify it by saying, you would never call someone with a disability retarded – you didn’t mean it that way. But that is what that word means. I mean, just because you say “duck” doesn’t mean duck anymore, that doesn’t change the fact that it does. It doesn’t stop you from thinking of a duck when somebody says it. Try saying her name. Try putting Evelyn’s name in place of the word retard. Say, “That’s so Evelyn!” when someone really screws up. Do you get it now?
If you’re still not sure, you can visit r-word.org and find lots of personal stories about how the r-word affects people. After that, if you still don’t understand, it doesn’t really matter. Because if you believe in respecting people and their feelings, it should be enough for you to know that it hurts, even if you don’t get why. It should be enough to choose a different word. It should be enough to make you buy a thesaurus. Just stop saying it! I never want my daughter to hear it.