Monday, April 13, 2009


When Kevin was 3, he got one of those Fisher Price tape recorders (do they even make them anymore now that everything's digital?), and he went through a phase that lasted several months during which he had that recorder with him at all times. He loved to record himself, and me and Michael. Sometimes he recorded us when we didn't know we were being recorded.

Yesterday I was going through some old keepsakes and mementos and I came across 3 casette tapes with no labels. I knew they must be some of the old stuff Kevin recorded all those years ago, and I thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane and hear Kevin at age 3. So I popped the tapes into the tape player in Kevin and Joey's room and were having a grand old time listening to "Little Kevin" from 9 years ago - singing, talking to us, talking to his stuffed animals, etc. Michael quizzing Kevin, me scolding Kevin, etc. Good stuff. Kevin and Joey and I were sitting there cracking up. Then all of a sudden, clear as day:

"You're so retarded!" Laughing. Me. Me, saying that to Michael. Michael talking in a goofy voice and laughing too.

Kevin and Joey looked at me with eyes as big as saucers. I felt sick to my stomach.

I know I used to use that word. But hearing myself say it . . . was just a lot different than knowing in some abstract way that I used to use demoralizing language like that. So casually.

Who the hell did I think I was? Did I think I was superior because disability hadn't touched my life personally? Did I just not know any better? No. I should have known better. I must have known better. I was an adult for god's sake. A mother! And that was the example I was setting for my 3-year-old child. I'm sure I thought it was harmless, and that I could afford the luxury of being so arrogant because my kid was "normal" (hell, he was gifted!), and I didn't personally know anyone with any disability. And now my 12-year old child and my 6-year old child got to hear their mom say it.

And this is the way the world works. People use this language because they have not been personally touched by somebody with an impairment. So it means nothing to them. It's just a word. It hasn't been personified for most people. It's abstract. Sticks and stones, and all that.

I find myself feeling angry and personally injured nowadays when I hear that terminology being casually thrown around, meant as a funny insult. Sometimes when I overhear some teenager screeching "RETARD!" to a friend and yucking it up, I feel my face going hot, and I have to supress the urge to march right over and slap them, or scream at them, or both. But what right do I have? I used to be just like them.

And I feel so, so ashamed.


Lis said...

I can imagine your embarrassment, but its hearing stories like this that pass along the message that saying that is NOT OK. Yes, it was wrong, but you are human. Use this as a learning experience with the kids:

"Mommy used to say that, but then she learned why that is so hurtful," etc...

Megan said...

I so knew where this post was going just from the title. As I read along, I kept wanting to change the ending....but what happened is what's true and the lesson is there for Kevin and Joey. People make mistakes. You're just human. Yes, you're a mom. Yes, you probably should have known better. But. You didn't. And you do now. And they do now. And now is what's important.

Maureen said...

Personally I never thought of that word as an adjective for stupid but lots of people do. My own best friend (since our freshman year of high school in 1979) continued to use it in conversation with me even after Kenneth was born. One time I was talking on the phone with her and she used the word 3 times (yes, I kept track) within a half hour conversation. At one point I was complaining how our boys spend too much time playing video games. Her response: 'Yeah, it's so retarded'. Then we started talking about how her sister-in-law is constantly job hopping which prompted the remark 'Kristen is so retarded' from her. I can't remember the 3rd way she used it but I was just so stunned, too stunned to even say anything to her. I asked my husband to speak with her about it because I was afraid I'd get too emotional. This was about a year and a half ago. She hasn't used the word since, at least not in my presence.

I just couldn't believe it was even necessary to point out her error since she was always accepting of Kenneth. At least you get it now. That's the main thing. Erase that part of the tape and save the rest.

SunflowerMom said...

Sweetie, we all make mistakes, each and every one of us. I think hearing that tape was just another opportunity for you to remind your kids that knowledge is power.

Alycia said...

Don't beat yourself up Lisa. You are human and in all honesty "you didn't know better." Maybe you "should have" but the truth is "how could you." Circumstances/experiences and life in general are what help us to grow and become better people.

It’s sad that the word started long ago as yes a “hate word” but over the years society has desensitized the word and the true meaning behind it was lost (in the context in which kids use it). It now means something very different when a junior high kid calls his friend that. The actual definition of the word is almost different. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to use. It’s NOT okay. I sometimes wonder if people just don’t know better or they are actually using the same word with a different definition or meaning behind it. Somewhat like the word “gay.” Neither of which is okay.

I felt this way about Obama and his comment. Right as I watched it I knew he was in trouble. Yes, he should have known better. But I must admit I did have a little compassion for him because I felt like the way in which he said his comment was not intended to be “hurtful” and anyone watching him could have seen that. Was it okay? Absolutely not! But I really and truly don’t think he had any idea how hurtful his comment could be to some people. You didn’t know years ago and maybe still wouldn’t. You can be a really intelligent person and still not know how something can make you feel until you truly experience it.

Don’t beat yourself up Lisa. Instead be proud of how far you have come and what a difference you are making with taking an active stand.

Tricia said...

I was cringing reading this. Not because I thought you a horrible person, but because of the awful feeling I know I would have if I had that kind of proof that I had said something like that--and I have. I feel terrible that your kids (and you) had to hear it, but like others said, it is a learning experience. Be kind to yourself. I know it must feel awful to hear it right there in reality, but kind. And we must be kind too, I suppose, when we ask others to respectfully refrain from using the word in the future.

Molly C said...

I recently downloaded a bunch of pictures from my AOL account. They were photos I had posted and captioned my Sophomore year of high school. I'm a junior in college now.

One of the captions was "Me, M & C. Looking retarded". When I saw that I felt SO much shame. How could I ever have said that? Post it for the world to see?

I'm not proud that I found that photo. I deleted it as fast as my fingers could hit the button. I've never told anyone this story before.

Just know that you are not alone. I work in special education now, and I stop complete strangers when they say "retarded". I'm not proud, but I'm also not the same Molly I was before. I've changed.

You are not the same person you were before Finn. You have every right to educate those girls.You know better now.

Carla said...


I think Alycia said it best. You should have known better, but how could you have? It's true, the word has become desensitized. People throw it out there with goofball, dork, airhead.... it's never nice to call names, but until you've been personally touched by it, most of us don't think twice about it.

It is what it is. Take it and learn from it. I'm sure once you explained it, the boys had an even better understanding of why people might say it without really thinking.

Lovin Mama said...

Go easy on yourself. Most of us don't have tape recorded proof of our mistakes before DS. I know I used the word and every time I would feel uneasy like I was doing something wrond. My conscience I guess. I still feel bad about it,too. Its a good opportunity for our kids to see that its ok to change our ways and admit when we're wrong.

Anonymous said...

Don't beat yourself up about it Lisa. It is a really great opportunity to show your humanity to your kids. You made a mistake but you are a different person today. I've said many things that I'm ashamed of now and thought that I should have known better. But I've had the chance to learn and grow as a person. ((hugs))

Chrystal said...

Wow. The only difference between what you said 9 years ago and what I surely said 9 years ago is that you were caught on tape.

I would feel the same way you're feeling now, I'm sure, but this is such an opportunity to teach your sons what is right and how it is so, so possible to make adjustments in life when necessary. It's never to late to do the right thing...and you're even more powerful as an advocate because you're not perfect, nor do you pretend to be, y'know?

Hector and Jennifer Varanini Sanchez said...

Just another powerful teaching moment for the family. A great reminder of how far we have all come as a result of being a parent to a child with special needs. What are the chances that you would have found the tapes, wanted or taken the time to listen to them and then hearing that. It's really amazing!

Karly said...

{hugs} I think most of us have had that realization...just maybe not so glaringly. I know I have said it in the past and feel the same shame. As kids, we thought it was okay as long as you weren't using it as a direct insult to a person with a physical/mental difference. We were wrong. Like the saying goes, when we know better, we can do better. I think we do a great service to our children to help them learn from our mistakes. And this is why I felt the way I did about Obama. We are all human. We all deserve the chance to make a mistake, feel remorse, learn and move on.

Jeanette said...

Ouch! I know that I used to use the word as well. It's amazing how being exposed to something makes you SEE things clearly. I remember having an overweight mother and an African American sister and cringing because people around me would crack racial jokes and make "fat" comments. I hated it. I am ashamed of the way I threw around the R-word because I never thought anything of it. BUT, now we know and we will live differently because of it.