Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A losing battle

There it was again last night: the R word, dropped like a bomb out of a clear blue sky. This time it came from the lips of someone I have a great deal of respect for, someone I look up to, someone I pay good money to offer me guidance and advice. She was telling Michael and me a little anecdote from her days as a grade school teacher, and she told about how the fourth grade was clearly divided: "There were the real smart, high achievers in one class," she said, "and the average kids in another class, and then the retards in another class." She went on to say that after a while of being surrounded by "the retards," the teacher of that class began to seem "like a retard herself."

I never in a million, billion, gazillion years expected to hear language like that uttered by this person. She's educated, she's compassionate, she's a church-going Christian who often talks about her spirituality. She knows we have a baby who has Down syndrome. And she has a grown son who has issues, including but not limited to ADD and Tourette's syndrome.

Our discussion continued for quite a while after her anecdote, but for a while, I didn't hear anything except the blood pounding in my ears. I felt something close to panic. Do I say something? Do I let it go? What do I do here?

When we were finally wrapping up our discussion, with heart pounding, I said, "I'm going to switch gears here for a minute." Michael knew exactly where I was going, because when she had said "retard" earlier, he gave me a look (not sure what the look meant, but it was an acknowledgment of some kind, I think). She looked at me quizzically, and I plunged ahead. "You know earlier, when you said 'retard'? That hurt. You know Finn has Down syndrome . . . and that word is just very hurtful, and I try to take opportunities to let people know that it's not okay to say things like that." My worst fear was that she would become defensive, but she didn't. She calmly told me that yes, it IS a hurtful term, but she was only using it in the context of the vernacular of the little story she was relaying to us. And I have to at least entertain the possibility that her explanation was true (and not just some made-up, on-the-spot excuse), since apparently that's how Michael had taken it to begin with. So then I am left asking myself, "Am I just too sensitive about this issue? Is my 'retard-radar' turned up too high?"

I don't know where to draw the line. I know that I can't change the world. The slang use of the terms "retarded" and "retard" as put-downs and punch lines seems to be so incredibly ingrained in our society that it almost feels like there is just no way to undo it. Even in literature. I am an avid reader of books - novels, memoirs, etc., and I seriously cannot remember the last book I read that didn't mention the term "retarded" in some context somewhere in it.

Michael and I talked about it last night, and apparently he is not nearly as bothered by the use of those words as I am. Maybe it's a personality thing, and the fact that he's just generally not as easily riled as I am. He said that those words have been used so much, for so long, that to him, they just no longer mean what they originally meant. He said that he really doesn't see Finn that way, anyway, so it's hard to see it as any kind of assault on Finn.

I, on the other hand, take it very personally. I can't seem to help but take it as an insult to Finn, to what he will eventually grow into, to all the people like him. And I don't want him to grow up hearing people throw those words around.

So here I am, left sitting here feeling befuddled about the whole thing.


Mel said...

I would be really offended by what the lady said. How she said it too. Good on you for standing up for what you believe in. The 'R' word is no more acceptable than racial slurs which came to be used as general, all-round derogitory slang. They are now found to be unacceptable, and I hope the 'R' word will go the same way. I think you handled it well, and maybe that lady will not use the word again, and maybe she'll teach others too. How she used it seems really not ok to me. I'm a teacher too, and I would never use that term about any student, even before we had Luke.

You're fighting the good fight- don't give up :)

Elizabeth said...

I am willing to give someone a pass on using the word retarded (even though it always always always) reduces my opinion of them) - until I explain to them how much it hurts me. If they then try to tell me I'm wrong or explain how it's ok or insist for whatever reason on continuing, then it's all over for me.
So no, I don't think your feelings are an overreaction at all - hearing someone using the word makes me physically ill and always will - I think because there's always a part of me that feels like "What if my sister (she has DS) were standing right here hearing this?" and it shakes me to my core.

rrouth said...

Lisa, I'm an educator and a mom. Never would I use the "r" word with anyone; not even in a joke. It's also my interpretation this is a hurtful word. You handled the situation calmly and with tact; now this lady will know you prefer not to hear the "r" word and perhaps she'll think twice before using it again. Kudos to you for standing your ground.

Leigh Anne said...

i'm sorry lisa! it's a word people use as a synonym for dumb or stupid...all derogatory, all hurtful. i'm glad you told her how it made you feel.

Following HIM said...

Any reference to the R word is derogatory and mean! Plus no child should ever have to be faced with this horrific word.

doozee said...

I have mixed feelings about it... one one hand, it IS hurtful when used in a derogatory way, but on the other, it's a descriptive for slow development. It's like so many other words that have gotten twisted in English and have taken on new meanings when they weren't that way to begin with and still aren't that way in the dictionary.
Doesn't mean that I wouldn't be inclined to beat up someone who called my kid one though....

Alycia said...

I really think it depends on the person... I understand both Michael and your point of view and I have felt both ways not just about the R word but many other "hate words." Before you shared your feelings with me I never once thought of it in the way you do. Now that I understand the hurt that comes with it and how it makes someone I love feel so I try to never use it. It bothers and hurts you and so those close to you should avoid using it and you should take a stand when you hear it. I admire that a lot about you.

I also think our society has gotten WAY out of control with being "politically correct." It drives me crazy sometimes. I dispise how sometimes you have to struggle to find the "politically correct" way to say the most simplest of things. To me the context is so much more important than the word. Definitions change over time and take on new meanings. Ie. This old man who is 96 years old and a client of my company always calls me "his favorite broad." He means it in a loving way and I think it is adorable. However if some 23 year old called me that I would be totally offended : ) The same thing with the word "gay." To me the word has a completley different definition depending on the way it is used. If we go back to the basics and really get "political" then yes the word can be a hate word but I dont think that most people intend to hurt anyone when they say it. It has just become a part of societies vocabulary over the years. Right or wrong is really up to the people in the conversation. If someone is offended by it then yes, they should take a stand and the person engaged in the conversation should try to be more sensitive to that person.

When I took a "Special Needs" class in college our book was titled, "The Exceptional Child" and we discussed all the different slang that is used and all the different names for all sorts of disabilities and which ones are "politically correct." The teacher had worked with "Special Needs" children for over 30 years and she said that she has heard it all... She said that she didn't have a problem with any of the names because she has watched society go back and forth on what to call certain disabilities. What is not okay this year will be okay in 5 years and vice versa. She told us to not get caught up in the names but to always be sensitive to others feelings and adapt especially to parents. I always thought that was great advice because over time I began to notice that some parents refused to use the terms that I thought were politically correct and they preferrd to use slang because for them the slang was less hurtful or permanent (at least that is why I think they preferred the slang).

Esther and Brian said...

Lisa, I think that you do have very strong feeling about this offensive word...you take it to heart...and that is OK, you know. I do not know how you feel exactly, as I cannot relate specifically to the "r" word...however, I feel offended and take it personally when strangers comment (every day) on how little my twins are. Yes, they are in the zero percentile for weight still, they are truly skinny. BUT they are healthy and doing great. But I am tired of those comments and all I want to say back is "well, at least my child is not going to be fat like your may be!" (there are plenty of big people where I live in the Midwest). But I don't say it back, just tell them that yes, they are skinny but healthy. But it hurts me, it does. I would love it they gained weight so that I could turn their carseats around! They are 16 months but we are still 2-3lb away from the 20lb requirement.
So yeah, you are sensitive to it...and so am I (to other things)...whatever, right?!

Also, wanted to tell you, regarding your previous post on Finn and developlment, is that I was at a health clinic with one of my sons on Sunday and there was a super cute girl with Down Syndrome sitting next to us. I do not know how she was at Finn's age, she is 4 years old now...but all I know is that she behaved like a "typical" friendly, sweet, funny 4-year old would. She asked about my son, how old he was, I asked how old she was, she counted to four, did not want to put her jacket on, Grandma had to reason with her, etc. You know, the typical kis stuff...and the point of this is that Finn will get to those milestone, too. It's just taking some time, but he's got time..his own little time...I am sure that this girl was "behind" in certain things, too, at one point...


Tricia said...

For me, it really depends on context-- and basically there are none other than those that are truly textbook that I really can tolerate. While I realize I don't know the entirety of the story she was telling, it does NOT even sound like vernacular. "then there are the retards" !?!?!?!?!?! And the teacher started acting like a retard!?!?! What was the whole story??? What was the point. My opinion of people definitely changes based on the words they choose. I try to be forgiving, and would much prefer someone coming forward and saying they screwed up than backpeddling.

Stephanie said...

You're absolutely right to be offended by her statements! And good for you for bringing it up and trying to educate her. I don't find it at all acceptable in any context except for a purely medical one. As a nurse myself, I've found myself using phrases like "cognitive delays" etc instead of mentally retarted, and that's precisely because of the way the word has been used in the common lexicon as a degradation or put down. So no, I don't believe your being too sensitive.

starrlife said...

Words are creatures full of the person who is saying them and also the person receiving! I know from other "slurs" , ie- Canuck (french canadian) which I am- we use it ourselves all of the time. many hate words have been claimed by their groups as their own.
Regardless of the abstract "issue"- all that matters is that it hurts you and I think it's appropriate to let people that you interact with know that. I also think it is good to raise consciousness about the power of the word in general- not in a self righteous way- just in a human, "do you know what you are really saying" way. Hugs.

Chrystal said...

This angers me. Perhaps because I'm able to more readily switch out the R word for the N word, maybe? Because that's what I do.

I didn't live through the Civil Rights movement or suffer the injustices of my great-grandparents (who I grew up knowing) and beyond, nor do I know what it feels like to live as someone with developmental disabilities, but I take offense to both terms in a very real way.

To me, it's one thing to use "retarded" in a dated or misinformed way and it's another entirely to say "retard" the way that she did. If she had said even "just like the retarded children", I would have bristled and asked for clarification, but I might not be as angry as I am right now. I know older people who use the terms "mentally retarded" and "Downs" but it is what it is. I might let it slide, depending on the person and what I know about them. In this case though, Lisa, I would have to call her on it.

Her explanation did not make sense to me. At all. Vernacular? Was she quoting someone? I don't get it. She would NEVER have said what she said using the N or F words. And if she had, there would be no question as to her character.

She needs to make it right.

jonas said...

my own personal outrage scale has definitely become more varied as time has passed since archer's birth, but I definitely have to stop and examine the usage whenever it comes up in media -- is this an R-rated movie? what's the intended audience? what's the context, who's the character saying it and what does it say about them, etc -- but if it's one on one or someone actually says it while I'm in the room, hell no, that does not stand.

you did the right thing asking for clarification. And I get what your husband said as well, though my wife and I have had those instances where people say "Oh, I don't think of Archer that way..." Well, then what DO you think of when you use that term, the stereotypical back-in-the-day image of a person with developmental disabilities? Does that make it any better?

HannahJ said...

I applaud you for speaking up. No one ever wants to offend the offender but when it comes to our families you MUST speak up. Personally I think her excuse for using the word was way off. People don't get away with using any other slur. You can't say the N word, can't say kike, spic, chink, etc. Why does retard get a pass? It's just not okay to take away someone's dignity with a casual remark.
If you want to really get your blood pressure up look at the groups on Facebook and YouTube that make a mockery out of your child and mine. It's enough to make you continue the good fight.
All the best.

MaggieMae said...

That's amazing! I have to say, I honestly rarely ever hear that horrible word... I'd be offended and devastated too. Good for you and your handling of the situation.

ashamom said...

That actually made me cry, Lisa.

She DID use it as a insult to those children! She used the term to illustrate her point about the teachers. As. an. insult!

Why did she think that that anecdote would be funny to you?