Law & Order and the R-Word

May 31, 2011

I am a Law & Order junkie. I love it. I watchedthe original most the years it aired and I like all the spin-offs too!  Bobby Goren is my all-time favorite character. Yesterday, I was watching an original from back in 1994.  Jonathan and Rachel had gone to see Kung Fu Panda 2.  Rachel’s Movie Review is forthcoming. You would think I would have seen them all at least once, but I didn’t remember the show.  They used the R-word nine times.  Jonathan walked in while it was airing and raised his eyebrows. They weren’t using it as slang. They were using it as a description of a young man who had been killed.  It is the accurate medical term for what we now call an intellectual disability. I said to Jonathan that the show was 17 years old. I would never have used the R-word as a slang slur 17 years ago anymore than I would use any other racial or cultural slur. Still, I wouldn’t have thought much about the use of it on the show or in describing someone.  It was years before we had Rachel, and we wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow 17 years ago.  Rachel has changed everything though.  Now, I know the pain I feel when I hear someone marginalize people with intellectual disabilities by using that word.  I know that I give my “evil eye” to people who use it. I know that the roofer who came to my house last week to try to convince me to use him for my roof repairs used the word in his conversation.  I actually tapped him on the shoulder, gasp and said “We don’t  use that word in our house. My daughter has Down syndrome.”  His response was that he grew up with a rough crowd and they used it. I said that they shouldn’t and he shouldn’t. He won’t be roofing my house.Church and friends, even those who know and see Rachel, are not immune either.  A couple of years ago we were having our church portraits made and another family came in. I recognized them but couldn’t say I know them. They were viewing proofs at the same time as we were. From across the room I heard the mom say, in front of her children, “I look retarded in that picture.”  I have a friend who flippantly said in front of me last fall, “I feel so retarded.”  I gasped and said  “Friend, we don’t use that word.  Remember, Rachel has Down syndrome?”  She was mortified.  I never told anyone about her saying that, but she felt such shame that she apologized over and over again. No need for that. She said, “I never thought about it.”  Most people don’t.  Jonathan went to eat with business associates a few years ago.  One kept talking about the “short bus”.  Finally, Jonathan said, “My daughter has Down syndrome.”  I’m sure the person was embarrassed. That wasn’t the goal.  We want to educate others. We want to affect change. It is a respect and dignity issue. Rachel has changed everything.

When you are tempted to use the R-word or hear someone use it, I hope you will think of Rachel and all the Rachel’s in the world.  Rachel, who is a victim every time the word is used, is the girl who has won a reading award for reading over 5,000 minutes every year the past three years. Rachel is the young lady who has been in 10 stage plays, her picture has been on Times Square seven times, she has gone fishing with Bill Dance and has been on his show, she has been on the Today Show with Al Roker twice, she made all a’s this nine weeks and won academic achievement certificates both semesters, she goes to church and sings to the Lord every Sunday, she makes me smile every day. She is just one representative of who is impacted when you use this word or you allow it to be used. My signature line on my emails quotes Benjamin Franklin:  “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”  It isn’t enough for you to not use it. You must speak up when others use it.

We are making progress. The stars of “Glee” are helping  us. In case you have missed it, here is a link to a public service announcement that ends with a message from Lauren Potter (Becky from “Glee”) and Jane Lynch (Sue Sylvester from “Glee”).  I think it is one of the most effective PSA’s I’ve seen. I hope you agree. Time will tell. Glee Says No to the R-Word

NOTE: In October 2010, President Obama signed into law Rosa’s Law, which will change references in federal law from mental retardation to intellectual disability, and references to a mentally retarded individual to an individual with an intellectual disability.

Angie responded:
A great reminder. I know I’ve been guilty of using the R word before, but have worked to get it out of my vocabulary and to the the kids if/when they hear it that is not a word we use.
Keep up the good fight, we’re all a work in progress!
Cyndi Lou responded:
Do you know how much I love you, love who you are and what you do??? I know it is the same as breathing for you….this standing up for the ones you love, educating people, making them aware…but some folks just don’t “get it.” My hope is that those of us who love and admire these greatly-abled individuals who we are so very blessed with will change the world with one comment or remark or post at a time. You are definitely my Sassy Southern friend, and I am honored to know you!!!
kb responded:
Thanks for the friendly reminders and the guidance on speaking up for others when the R word is used. It has been, on occasion, difficult for me to do so, but I have come to recognize that now there is no excuse for me to pass us these opportunities to educate and at times firmly re-direct. I appreciate the links in today’s post.
Dawn responded:
I have a younger brother with Down’s. We are 2 years apart. He is 36. I have always referred him with him being Mentally Retarded growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. I still can’t put Intellectually Disabled in my vocabulary ..I’m trying…BUT I don’t use that R word anymore…I just say that he is mentally Handicapped…And this is coming from someone that has grown up with it! You are very lucky that your daughter was born in this day and time! She has more opportunities than what my brother had at her age!Oh one more thing that I have a hard time with, it’s called Down’s Syndrome from the Dr. that 1st discovered the gene anomaly. I can’t get used to people saying Down (without the “s”) Syndrome. LOL

Moral to my LONG comment:
some people were born in a different time and have to get used to being PC.
Also, Why do you have to refer to your daughter when someone says “retarded”? She sure doesn’t sound like she is!! Just correct them and go on!

Jawanda Mast responded:
Jawanda Mast
Readers: thanks for reading and for working on this important issue!
Dawn, thank you for your honest post. I must say I did not follow your sentence: Why do you have to refer to your daughter when someone says “retarded”? She sure doesn’t sound like she is!! Just correct them and go on!? For some relatively up-to-date and informational reading, I would encourage you to check out and websites. Prior to President Obama signing Rosa’s Law, Mental Retardation was the accepted term used scientifically, clinically and by most states and schools and is defined in very simple terms as: a condition diagnosed before age 18 that includes below-average general intellectual function, and a lack of the skills necessary for daily living. Most often some sort of psychological evaluation is used to slap the label on individuals. It is also used as a mean, derogatory, slang term in today’s society. Because of this, it is considered disrespectful. So yes, in old-fashioned terms my daughter would have that diagnosis. If you watch the Glee PSA, I think it does a remarkable job of showing why it is considered disrespectful.Downs vs Down. Since the 1970’s it has been the preferred language in the United States to refer to it as Down syndrome instead of “Down’s syndrome”. You are correct, it was Dr. John Langdon Down who discovered Down syndrome. Dr. Down did not “have” Down syndrome, so it is not given the possessive apostrophe as Lou Gehrig’s Disease is since Lou Gehrig actually had that condition.

Yes, I am lucky that my daughter was born today. I am deeply appreciative of those who advocated for her to have the opportunities she has. I have devoted tireless hours to advocating for her and for others with intellectual disabilities so that they can have more opportunities in the future. She does have more opportunities but it has not been without a great amount of commitment on the part of my husband, me, family, friends and Down syndrome advocacy groups that she is afforded these opportunities. It isn’t just about being politically correct. It is about dignity and respect of those with all kinds of disabilities and valuing every life. Formerly, I was the director of a Down syndrome organization. I frequently said, “I do what I do so people with Down syndrome can live real lives.” We have made great strides, but there is still a long way to go. For example, did you know that about 80% of adults with developmental disabilities aren’t employed? I don’t want Rachel Mast to be one of that 80%. That is only one area where we lag behind. I stand firmly by my advocacy efforts. Thanks for reading and your comments.

Dawn responded:
This is what I was referring to:
I have a friend who flippantly said in front of me last fall, “I feel so retarded.”  I gasped and said  “Friend, we don’t use that word.  Remember, Rachel has Down syndrome?”  She was mortified.
Your daughter has Downs…that’s all! I have known Down Syndrome adults that are college graduates. I have been involved with Special Olympics since I was young and also volunteered at the World Games when they were in the USA.
My mother was a BIG advocate to get my brother into a normal classroom when he was in school. Now I advocate for him. I know exactly where you are coming from and have been a part of the mentally handicapped community by working with them in group homes and in workshop environments since the 90’s. And yes, I know that 80% don’t have jobs because my brother is one of them….
I saw the PSA before it was released on national tv…it’s awesome! I also give kudos to Sesame Street that was the very first tv show ever put a Down Syndrome child on their show when I was little and was able to relate. Also, to Chris Burke that became a national star and showed that Down Syndrome people have more to offer.
Thank you for advocating for your daughter! She is beautiful and deserves parents like you to fight for her and the DS community!
kb responded:
Good morning to everyone. This has been a very interesting series of posts related to language and word choice and I am deeply appreciative for the discussion as I believe it is an important one. It is evident that most of us commenting know and most certainly love someone with Down syndrome, whether that person is a child or a sibling. In my case, that person is a child and his name is Luke. I am 39 and Luke is 4. I never knew someone with Down syndrome until I gave birth to Luke. Sadly, I have to admit that I most certainly have used the R word inappropriately when I was a teenager and young adult. It is something that I deeply regret and can quickly move me to tears when I think about how I have dismissed another’s humanity with that word and while I am confident I did this to be funny, at the end of the day, this is simply hurtful. As such, there are no excuses. Certainly when I found out about Luke (which was prenatally), I never used that word again and the shame is now just mine alone for having done so in the past.That was a quick and immediate change in my language though. What took a bit of time was people first language and I have found that even with those who simply adore Luke and would do anything for him, that the shift can be a bit slow for them as well. For me, people first language occurs best when the person or the child is put first and the Down syndrome, in its most appropriate place, which is second. An example of this would be, “Luke has Down syndrome rather than Luke is a Downs kid.” Down syndrome is what Luke has, it certainly is not who he is.

I know it is sometimes tough to make these changes in language but when we think about how far we have come, there is so much more advocating left to do and modeling people first language along the way helps tremendously.

Please know that I have certainly enjoyed this blog and these posts. At the end of the day, it is evident we all love someone that has Down syndrome, we have all advocated on their behalf and will continue to do so. I am so grateful for all of the advocating that has been done before Luke entered this world as I know he is a direct recipient of your tireless efforts. Thank you.

Jawanda Mast responded:
Jawanda Mast
Excellent points KB. Respect and dignity. Moving forward and what we all have to do to make that happen!
Mom2Hannah&Gavin responded:
Jawanda I love your blog which I stumbled upon via Twiter. This blog post is one of many on the subject of the R word which causes so much controversy. Thank you for your poignant and heartfelt thoughts which you share with all of us other parents. Keep it coming!
Jawanda Mast responded:
Jawanda Mast
Thank you Mom2hannah&gavin! Really, I know God gave me Rachel for a purpose and He has been preparing me for it for a lifetime. I have to use the gifts he gave me to try to make a difference. Sometimes I steal from Reese Witherspoon and June Carter Cash and say, “I’m just trying to matter!”

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