We now have the R-word, happily joining the demise of the N-word, at least in the halls of government.
In 2010 President Obama signed Rosa’s Law mandating the term ‘intellectual disability’ replace ‘mental retardation’ in all federal health and education policies.
As of this month Social Security has dropped the language and in Florida, our state of residence, Governor Rick Scott followed forty other states by signing a bill, in February of this year, removing ‘retardation’ from state statutes.
The clinical definition of the word retarded is: slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress. In its simplest form it means, to slow down by preventing or hindering advance or accomplishment, to impede.
I’m not bothered by the R-word much anymore. Though he may be slow in many undertakings, our son, Jonathan, and others like him are so much more than the definition of the words that label them; they are people first with individuality, personality, feelings, wants, hopes and dreams just like all of us.
Those who make an effort to know them understand this.
The morning following our firstborn’s arrival in May of 1980, the pediatrician came into my hospital room to give me the news.
Our baby had Down syndrome.
When our son was born, the use of the word mongoloid, which for decades inappropriately described people with Down syndrome, was declining and being replaced with the last name of the British doctor, John Langdon Down, who first classified the characteristics of the syndrome in 1866.
Up to that point, I had limited knowledge and exposure to people with mental disabilities. The law providing disabled children a public education wasn’t passed until the year 1975, two years after I graduated from high school and in previous generations the majority of disabled children were hidden away at home or put in institutions never to be seen again.
I had no idea what Down syndrome was; had never even heard of it.
“What is that?” I asked the doctor, hoping it was some minor newborn problem that would go away in a few days .
“A mongoloid,” he answered, the inflection of his voice rising at the end of the word as if asking a question.
He looked at me like he hoped I knew what that meant.
That word sent a jolt of fear deep into my very core. I remembered catching brief glimpses of “mongoloid” people. Images of a young man who attended the church I went to as a child immediately scrolled through my mind.
‘But we don’t like to use that term anymore,’ the doctor explained, ‘’Down syndrome describes the condition and its various symptoms better. I’m sorry, but you need to be aware that there is no cure for this and your child will be retarded for the rest of his life.”
In just a few sentences, I had heard every word available at the time, in medicine and society, to categorize my baby. In that life changing moment such terminology came only with the realization that I was totally unprepared for what the future might hold for us and our newborn son.
I had a lot to learn.
Years later, our youngest son came home on a college break, bringing a group of friends with him; a mix of guys and gals. As we gathered around the table for an evening of popcorn and board games, the random banter and laughter of youth reverberated through the house.
At the height of their silliness, one of the guys made a funny comment that sent everyone into laughing fits. One of the girls flippantly responded by telling him, “You’re such a retard.”
Suddenly, silence halted the clamor.
In the college lunch hall the conversation and laughter would have continued without a thought. But here, as guests in Jonathan’s home, sitting at his family’s table, laughter quickly changed to embarrassment, with the immediate realization of what had been said.
Red faced and tripping over her tongue, the girl began apologizing profusely.
She didn’t mean to be hurtful, I got that. It was an expression, something kids say to each other and in that context the word was a synonym for acting dumb or ridiculous.
I wasn’t upset, but told her she needed to think how Jon would feel if he had heard her. Fortunately he hadn’t.
The word, retard, had been used toward him in a derogatory context and he only knew it as a put down. His reasoning and processing ability is very literal and it’s often difficult for him to separate words based on context. The framework for forming the multiple nuances of a word, are usually lost on Jon.
I hoped it was a lesson she and the other students present that evening, never forgot.
Legislating behavior doesn’t change who we are on the inside and playing politically correct word games does nothing to change the heart of a person who chooses to degrade a word from its original definition into a weapon of insult.
If we simply value every God created human life, treating others the way we want to be treated, and think about the impact of our words, there would be no need to sign laws to send words to the dictionary scrap heap.
We are called to speak blessing not condemnation. Peace not strife. Encouragement not injury.
Forget N and R words!
Solve the problem.
Communicate the G-word to everyone, everywhere.
There’s no law against that one, at least not yet.
Let your conversation be always full of grace.. Colossians 4:6
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. Ephesians 4:29