The "R" Word
by Kathleen T. Riggs PROUD President
Retardation is a word that I have always hated in all of its forms, even before it affected my life so profoundly. It stems from the school yard ridicules that children suffered when I grew up. These taunts were not directed at children with any mental challenge whatsoever, just children who didn't fit in. The bullies even mispronounced the word and I am unable to bring myself to recreate it here all of these ears later. The children with mental challenges and physical challenges were not allowed in typical classrooms when I went through school.
It wasn't until college that I first encountered more than just in passing, a person with some type of challenge. How much I wanted to get to know them better, but I was afraid largely because I never had any contact with anyone "different" while growing up. I didn't know sign language, and felt very inadequate in attempting any type of communication, even a smile. I was taught not to stare, but to look away from someone in a wheelchair and certainly not to have any contact with someone who had a mental challenge. I didn't learn this lesson from my family, but from school mates. It took me awhile to unlearn this horrible practice, and to this day, I sometimes have difficulty when I encounter someone with a challenge. Realizing the difficulty, I hope that makes me more aware and makes me strive harder to overcome.
As enlightened as I have become over the last 7 years, I still have very real trouble with the "R" word. In selecting this topic, I had hoped that my trusty Webster's dictionary would steer me toward the path of making peace with the word and then be able to use it more freely. It hasn't.
I hate it more than ever. It isn't the dictionary definition, it is what Webster added to the definition-the so called slang for (disparaging) that is offensive, characterizing a person who has mental retardation as "stupid, obtuse, or ineffective". This from Webster's 1996 edition!
What brought me to thinking seriously about my aversion to the "R" word was when I volunteered to assist the Knights of Columbus at my church with their annual "Tootsie Roll Drive from Mentally Retarded Children" earlier this year. The Knights of Columbus do wonderful work in many areas and their help with mentally challenged individuals is legendary. Hating the "R" word, I wore my yellow apron willingly, hoping against hope that they will someday get rid of "that word" and replace it with "challenged", becoming more politically correct. As aprons wear out, hopefully they will be replaced with ones that have better wording. It is time (in my opinion) that the word be eliminated completely from use. The ARC (The Association of Retarded Citizens) already no longer uses the "R" word in their literature, and many other organizations have followed their lead.
There are plenty of people out there (maybe even you!) who have no problems with the "R" word. I applaud your ability to use this word freely. I still can't do it. I probably will never be able to get past my own childhood experience, and maybe in this instance that isn't so bad. For now, I refuse to allow the "R" word to be used in connection with our son, or to be written in any reports, including doctor's and IEP reports. Maybe I am overreacting, but as I have said before, we are the people who will change perceptions, and we each have to do our part, however small, to improve the lives of our children. In my opinion, as long as the "R" word is stapled to every move they make, it will be a barrier.
First published in The Optimist (November/December, 1996