Information for parents of disabled children

Friday, February 5, 2010

Arrested Development

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire September 1935Image by dovima_is_devine via Flickr
The word retarded often requires description these days. It's always been a merely descriptive word, an adjective. It's a part of speech and nothing more. The trouble is that the minute it describes you or someone you love it has a power over your life you never knew a word could have. It's like the word Cancer, a noun. Your life suddenly has a divider in it; the time before that word and the time after when nothing is as it was.

When used to demean or describe another person unfairly, it burns far deeper than other words ever could. Why? Because it's not something you are or part of your identity, it's something that keeps you from being the authentic self you want to be. It usually refers to a disease or disorder that effectively separates one human being from the rest of the world around him.

"Retard" is particularly hard for me to hear as a mother, but it was hard before I had a child with autism. It's an ugly word in that context with an ugly meaning. It's effectively saying "you're so stupid, nothing can be done to help you and you'll never do anything 'normal'." What an ugly little lie!

Developmental retardation only means that life takes more effort. It's not demeaning to help my son or love my son. He's not helpless or stupid at all. He's a wonderful, adaptive person who never quits, never surrenders. Most famously, Ginger Rogers was once compared to Fred Astaire, that she did everything he did, but backwards and in heels. That's it exactly!

My son, Darrel, and I both walk down stairs, but the open slats don't bother me. I can see clearly and judge each step with ease, and I don't hold the railing in fear of falling. He does, but, each morning, we both march to the bus. Which of us is the most to be admired? Neurological disorders are obstacles, things that trip us up, but working with special needs, I've learned that the main thing that makes them special is the inability to just quit walking down the stairs or working the problem. They get discouraged, as do we all, but they just keep dancing.

The issue with the word is related to the power of the word. We fear that word as a society and as individuals, and it's not becoming any less scary in the 1-in-100 world we occupy. Even family members in the early days of our diagnosis could slip and use the word in front of us in just that context, calling someone else a "retard". Talk about awkward. It's our nature to belittle what we fear, so I would correct them gently and move on, case closed.

What I do not tolerate, what I cannot tolerate is the bandying about of powerful words with no understanding of the effect they have only to forward an agenda, an agenda of fear and hatred based on little fact or intellect, I might add! Mental retardation isn't a concept. It's a fact of life. The primary difference between yourself, Mr. Limbaugh, and my little boy is that he has a reason to throw a tantrum. His life is truly harder than anything you ever experienced in yours. If you had to change places with Darrel, you couldn't pull it off. He can do seventy-five percent of the things you do in a day, and he does it backwards, quite nearly literally.  So think what you want about politics, but think again when you start calling anyone names that profane. You don't strike me as the type to apologize, but you really should to each and every person afflicted with the disorder you use as an insult. You can start with my son!


If you agree with the following PSA, then"retard" is a bad, bad word.

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