The R-Word: What Would You Do?

September 13, 2011

Yesterday the Down Syndrome Association of Memphis and the Mid-South posted a link to the National Catholic Registry and a story called “She Called Them Retards” by Pat Archbold. You can click on the link to read the story but the essence is that the author is running in a race with a number of individuals who have disabilities.  He overhears a younger woman in the group refer to some of the runners as “retards.” He is stunned and thinks he surely misunderstood.  Then, he hears it again and again. In the end, he said nothing.  DSAM’s post wanted to know how you would handle the situation. I am pretty outspoken on this subject but the truth is, I don’t know if I would have said anything either. Truthfully, when I used to work a lot with parents who were new to the world of Down syndrome and disability,  I would tell them it is important to educate yourself and then to educate others. Sometimes it is worth the emotional energy and sometimes it just isn’t.  I did have a friend who reamed a group at her local Down syndrome awareness walk. A car full of teens hopped out calling each other the “r-word.”  She chased them down and dressed them down! “Do you know why you are at this walk?” I chuckle thinking of that.

My other pervasive thought was about my own past actions, the “Before Rache”l era of my life.  When I was growing up (keep in mind I’m 50), I didn’t hear people called the r-word much. Some but I think there were other slang words, slurs and mean things that took center stage.  Keep in mind that IDEA was passed while I was in high school so we didn’t have inclusive classrooms. In my speaking engagements, I frequently say that we didn’t have anyone with a disability That makes me chuckle too. I go on to say that actually we did but they weren’t diagnosed back then!  I did plenty of things I’m not so proud of growing up, but I can say with reasonable certainty that calling someone the r-word or other cultural, socioeconomic or racial slurs was not common in my vocabulary. I wish I could say that was because of my high ideals and moral compass, but the truth is that I was afraid of my mom’s switch.  She was not very tolerant of such things.  I feared her enough to know that if she learned of such a transgression I would be picking my own switch and it would not be pretty.

While I may not have intentionally discriminated against a person with a disability and I have always tried to be kind and nice to those who are different, I never did the one thing that I want kids to do for my Rachel.  I never went out of my way to include anyone with a disability or someone who is different. I know that everyone thinks our youth have gone by the wayside. I know that everyone thinks they are so mean and cruel today. And they can be but that has always been true. The weapons are more powerful (cyberspace) and they start earlier but we have always been cruel to those who are different. I have seen so many good kids who do the right thing in my 30+ years of working with families.  I am hoping that these kids will step up and be the kid I wasn’t. I hope they will be the kids who make it a habit of including those who are different and that they will be the ones that frown on the group using the R-word. That’s what I am hoping.




Pam responded:
And then there are sisters and brothers:
For Russell – Think Before You Speak
A response to the entry in Urban Dictionary online
(No, I don’t want you to go there. Her video is posted there. We don’t have to see that.) am reassured that there are so many young people who do speak out. It is so easy for the words of those who rely on shock value to define what they believe is their individuality to overshadow the casual support and acceptance my son finds even in unexpected places.

Jawanda Mast responded:
Jawanda Mast
Pam – I agree. I’ve been so encouraged by so many young people who are Rachel’s friends. And the Russell video is awesome! Thanks for your post.
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