Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Facing the mountain

The R Word Campaign

“Even more shameful are my co-workers. People who work to support other people with developmental disabilities. They still throw that word around without thought while at the same time saying how much they care for those they work with. It makes me angry, but also feel hopeless and helpless. How do we stop it?”

This comment was left on a post by Dave Hingsburger about the pain and anguish caused to a teenager by the use of the word, “R#tard.” Dave was sitting in a hotel lobby near a girl with Down Syndrome, and saw her reaction when another teenager walked by and was teased by her friend who had accidentally dropped something, “Stop being so r#tarded, will you?”

Dave said of the girl he was sitting near, “Hurt flooded her face. R#tard pierced her heart, her soul…”

Although I have had many self-esteem reducing experiences in my childhood, I consider myself strong (thanks in part to the blogging community). But, like I’ve heard from people I have interviewed, old wounds of dehumanization can be violently and unexpectedly torn open.

Yesterday, my mom said she saw hurt flood my face. I felt my heart pierced. It only lasted a moment, but it was there.

I had let my guard down because I felt I was in a “safe” place, a major rehabilitation clinic. People with various impairments walked and rolled all around the building. I have been here many times, and the staff has been respectful, kind, and professional.

So, I never saw it coming. I was in an exam room for my 3rd appointment of the day. The door was open, and I could hear the lighthearted goings-on in the office area across the hall.

A staff member was having trouble using the stapler. Loudly, she proclaimed that she must be “such a r#tard!” She continued bubbly chattering with her coworker, and then called in her next patient from the waiting room.

The hurt, painful as it was, lasted just a moment. Then my emotions quickly went from shock to anger to sadness. I thought about the new parents, sitting in the waiting room with their twin 2 year boys, hearing that word in this place. This supposed shelter from the outside world. This place of support. These people of authority.

My mom and I deliberated about what action to take. It helps having a trusted person with you to sort through it all. We couldn’t speak with the staff member because she was in with her patient. My mom wrote her a note, and we decided to speak with the supervisor. The supervisor listened respectfully and apologized for her staff member. She said that the organization did indeed have language sensitivity training, but also stated that sometimes people have trouble with “slips of the tongue.” She also assured us that she would speak with the staff member. Today, we received a voicemail, with a sincere apology from the staff person, who said that she didn’t even realize that this word had slipped out of her mouth, and she was horrified at her action. She thanked us for calling her on this act.

It is so disheartening that this slur is so ingrained in our culture that even well-meaning professionals who work with PWDs, casually through their language, degrade and dehumanize the very people that they support with their services.

It seems that working to abolish the slur, “r#tard,” is like climbing a long stubborn mountain. It seems impossible to get to rid of a word that is so deep in our culture. Fighting dehumanization is wearying and exhausting. And yet I believe we all must keep at it. We must keep advocating. The only way to we can really change the culture and end the discrimination is to bring these issues to light.

Links: Wheelchair Dancer has a comprehensive post on the use of language and disability. Andrea and Penny Richards give lists of alternative words that do not put down as Penny puts it, “whole groups of perfectly decent disabled people in your disapproval.”

And, thanks to Andrea for this link: The “r” Word Campaign.

“Some people have mental retardation. While mental retardation is not a bad word, when used to describe someone or something you think is bad it becomes another thoughtless hurtful word. People with mental retardation are not bad, their condition is not bad, the prejudice and discrimination to people with mental retardation is BAD…and WRONG! Please stop using the word ‘retard’, it hurts people with disabilities.”


Terri said...

Thank you for posting this--I didn't know about this group. I will be blogging on this soon as well!

Anonymous said...

That word is enough to break my heart too. You did the right thing calling her on it. And she also did the right thing in apologising. That's one less person who will randomly drop that word.

Ruth said...

I agree that calling her on it was the right thing to do. The use of the word is widespread and as Dave (and you) wrote, so very very hurtful.

Anonymous said...

Hi!! (I've been thinking of you and your family. Can't wait to see you guys!)

While Raych has made it her personal mission to take on her peers (and others) who use "gay" as a putdown, Jack's personal mission is stopping the use of "retarded" as a negative descriptor. I am proud of them both for directly calling people out when they use the terms in that way. I get to do my share of language advocacy in my position, too! :)

Great post (as always)!
xoxo, Lee

Anonymous said...

David, thanks for this post. In my opinion, the r-word is as hurtful as the n-word, yet most people don't recognize it as such or dismiss us as being "too sensitive". Thank you David for bringing this issue to the light. Hopefully people will become more aware of what comes out of their mouths.

seahorse said...

This is not a common word in the UK, but it does get used. Gay seems to be the insult du jour at the moment. Educating kids from an early age helps. So, as you can imagine, many many words are off-limits at my house. I even pull my son up on using the word normal, if it's in a context I don't feel comfortable with. I hope it makes a difference, I really do.

Attila the Mom said...

What a lovely, thought-provoking post.

This year I made it a New Year's resolution to mention how hurtful the term is to bloggers I care about reading whenever they use it, or the equally offensive "f*cktard".

I ended up having to live up to my resolution first with my own darn family---a New Year's multi-generational family dinner---where a nephew and brother started throwing around "retarded" while sitting next to my kid.

They were appalled at themselves when I pointed it out later. It's become such a staple of our venacular that they didn't even realize how hurtful they were being.

Again, just loved your post!