Wednesday, March 6, 2013

the one

I spent considerable time yesterday looking for my friend's words.

They matter. I want to get them just right. It is important to me.

But they've gone missing, as many words tend to do in the abyss of Facebook posts, in the land where words get shortened to acronyms and emoticons stand in for what we really mean.

My friend wrote about how she was trying really, really hard to stop saying "retarded." That she knew how hurtful and wrong it was, about how offensive it was to people with disabilities and those who loved them.

(I really wish I had her exact words.)

Of course, I clicked "like" on her post.

Of course I did.

When we worked together several years ago, this friend was a habitual offender in the misuse of the r-word. There's a slight generational gap between us. She's part of a demographic that supposedly grew up using the r-word to mean something other than someone with a developmental disability. But to me, that's the only definition that there possibly can be.

During the years we worked together, my son was in a preschool classroom with other 4 year old children like him who also had autism and special needs. It was easy to tell that my son was different: he didn't transition well, he didn't take kindly to new surroundings or changes in his routines (even those as seemingly mundane as needing to take a different road home because of a traffic accident), he didn't interact well with his peers.

My coworker knew about my son. Everyone in our small office did; we were in the black hole years of finding our way through therapies and special education and fighting insurance companies and paying out of pocket to help him. I was fortunate to have a boss who was highly supportive of people with disabilities and who welcomed my son into the office on occasion.

When my friend posted her Facebook comment about trying not to say the r-word as often, I thanked her for doing so. It is an important first step.

And then she surprised me.

She said it was because of working with me that she realized how hurtful that word was.

And for once, I didn't have any words.

I thought back to what I did back then - and what I didn't do -  because I don't know what made the difference for my friend, if it was one thing or a combination of things. Whether it was because of seeing my son in the office on occasion or our boss starting to change the culture in terms of the language. I don't remember having a one-on-one conversation with my coworker about this. I know that I certainly should have. (See "How to Discuss the R Word with Others")

What I do know is this:

Sometimes change (in the world and in people) is slower than we would like it to be.

Sometimes even when we feel like we are making progress and think that others finally get it and understand, we still feel a gut-punch when someone we love uses the r-word.

And that sometimes, we are having an effect on people even when we don't realize it.

We all have the one friend or relative or coworker like mine. The one who uses the r-word too often and the one we struggle to find the words to tell that it isn't okay. Perhaps you recognize yourself or someone you know in this post. Today is the annual day of awareness of the hurtful use of the r-word.  It is time we Spread the Word to End the Word and build awareness for society to stop and think about its’ use of the R-word. 

Starting today. 

My previous Spread the Word to End the Word posts:

It's Not Just Another Word  (March 7, 2012)

Today's the Day (March 31, 2009)

Most people don’t think of this word as hate speech, but that’s exactly what it feels like to millions of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families and friends. The R-word is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur. 

We’re asking every person - young and old - to help eliminate the demeaning use of the R-word–a common taunt used to make fun of others.  Often unwittingly, the word is used to denote behavior that is clumsy, hapless, and even hopeless.  But whether intentional or not, the word conjures up a painful stereotype of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  It hurts. Even if you don’t mean it that way.

Language affects attitudes. Attitudes impact actions. 

Make your pledge to choose respectful people first language at


Melissa Sarno said...

oh my gosh, so strange you should post this today (and thank you for posting it). yesterday, i had a very long internal debate about what to do about a facebook status that used this word and I'm still thinking about it today. i find it a hard topic to deal with on many levels. i guess what I often find so difficult about it is that very intelligent people often use the word. it seems to have gone beyond ignorance and is just an everyday word.

Ali said...

Beautiful post. Thank you for writing it.

Lisa Gradess Weinstein said...

I hear teenagers use it to make fun of each other, and I struggle with how to approach the subject with them. I think you've given me a good foundation to start Melissa.