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The R-Word

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Me with my Aunt Sarah Jane (Down Syndrome) and my Great Grandmother Mimi Hannah

I’m not exactly sure why I used the R-Word, but I did. 


I even grew up with a Great Aunt who had Down syndrome — someone I loved very much — and yet I used that terrible word like it was no different than "apple" or "pretty". 

Me - along with my Great Aunt Sarah Jane, and Great Grandmother

You'd think I would have known better — that I would have eliminated it from my vocabulary — but I didn’t. For over 34 years. 


I used to say it so much, it still floats around in the back of my mind sometimes, to the point where I have to consciously correct myself from letting it slip. "Retarded". Just typing it now makes my skin crawl. 


I guess it took having a daughter with intellectual disabilities to make me fully understand just how ugly and hurtful this word really is. 


Not too long ago, doctors would have described a child like mine as “mentally retarded.” In fact, some doctors still might. Now “intellectual disability” has become more commonplace.  


Why? Because of Rosa’s Law, a law enacted in 2010 that required all federal health, education, and labor policies to use the phrases “intellectual disability” or “individual with an intellectual disability” instead of “mentally retarded.” This law was named after Rosa Marcellino, a little girl with Down syndrome. 

Ava - prediagnosis of Williams syndrome - 9 months

But if you were like me 5 years ago, you still might be wondering why this matters.  Why is the word "retarded" so bad, anyway?


Put simply, the original medical term, "mentally retarded", became slang. The shortened phrase, “retard”, became a phrase commonly used to describe anyone or anything that was less than someone or something else. (Read that a few times).  


Now imagine how that makes someone with an intellectual disability feel. 


After many years of "retarded" being used in a derogatory way, disability advocates worked hard to get society to use a better term — one that wasn’t attached to such hurtful and hateful meanings. A term that wasn't slang for "less than".


I used to use the word "retard" to poke fun at friends who didn’t understand something. I would call myself "retarded" when I messed up. Objects were "retarded" if they didn't work right. People I was angry with were "retards" because they didn't agree with me. 


And the ironic part? I was a “good girl.” I did well in school and stuck up for the kids who got bullied. I tried to make those who felt left out, feel included.  I tried to make others feel needed, valued, and loved when others tried to tear them down.

Ava - 4.5 years old

So why did I use the word? I honestly don't know. I guess I was ignorant. I was naive and didn’t think I was harming anyone by using it — especially whenever I used it towards myself. 


That, or maybe because I thought it was the “cool” way to talk? I certainly didn’t think it was uncool, I can tell you that. I mean, everyone was using it.   


The only conclusion that I can come to is that it was probably a combination of all of those reasons. And it’s not something I’m proud of. 


If you’ve read this far and you don’t agree with me, I challenge you to think of the substitutes you could use instead. Yeah...none of those words are nice either.


Go on...try again and think about it long and hard: are thereany nice, pleasant, or positive words that you can use in its place?  


I’m not here to cause an argument or judge. Remember, I just admitted to using this word myself FOR THE MAJORITY OF MY TIME ON THIS PLANET!  What I’m trying to do instead is share my story.


I really hope you feel inspired to change the way you talk. I promise you: if I can do it, so can you. If not, please help by sharing my story. Why? Because chances are, someone you know still uses it, and, well, maybe they’ll read this and feel moved to change, too.  


Because let me tell you: hearing this word since my daughter’s Williams syndrome diagnosis really, really sucks.  


It hurts so bad because I look at this little girl of mine and I would never in a million years think that she’s less than someone else.  

Ava - 4.5 years old - Williams Syndrome

She has intellectual disabilities and life has been hard for her to understand from the start, yet she is worthy of a good life just like you and I.  


She would do anything to be your friend, and has a personality worth far more than any IQ score.  She is not dumb, or stupid, or an idiot. In fact, she is very far from it. She has talents that the rest of us wish we had. She has only been on earth for a short 4 ½ years, and is already making an impact.


Words and actions are powerful, but they're more powerful when they're used to create positive change. Will you join me in spreading the word to end the word?


1 Response

Laura Ginn
Laura Ginn

March 11, 2020

She is a beautiful little girl. May she have many folks that love and cherish her. MayGod always bless her.
You are a special person to have been chosen to be her Mother, God only gives to the most compassionate.

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