Today is the day that organizations like the Special Olympics and Best Buddies sponsor "Spread the Word to End the Word" to bring awareness to the use, both casual and deliberately cruel, of the word "retarded."
In recent years, I've found myself getting caught up in exactly how unprepared the world really is for our kids, and how ugly the result can be. It's easy to forget. It's easy to become so insulated in our everyday lives as parents and so infatuated with our own beautiful children that we forget that to much of the outside world, these kids are simply perceived as being … less.
Julie and I fought for over a year to keep my daughter's school from attaching a label of "mental retardation," a label that we feared would result in a lowering of expectations for her educational team. As a result of that fight, I guess I had become sensitive to that word. I didn't think it was as dangerous in the mouth of an ignorant neighbor as it was coming from a professional educator with some very real power in my daughter's life, but still. The word stuck in my ear in a way that it hadn't before. I'm ashamed to admit that my own resistance to the word and my own distaste for using it myself had to grow out of personal experience rather than just basic human dignity, but there it is.
It's a tricky task, attempting to affect societal change instead of just voicing outrage. The word "retarded" has, regrettably, become a part of the popular culture, and prying it out of the vernacular is going to take some patient work. There's a saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. I don't easily take up that particular hammer. If we attack every single utterance of the R Word and refuse to accept the apologies of those who offer them, we're going to be using our very limited resources to play a gigantic, losing game of Whack-A-Mole. In most cases, we need to educate, not punish.
Mostly, I want my fellow citizens of the world to not even want to say it in the first place. I want the word to taste bitter in their mouths.
Sometimes, however, there are battles that are truly deserving of every ounce of outrage we can muster. There are people who use words like "retarded" deliberately, not with the slip of a tongue and not wielded satirically, but with cold, cruel calculation, for the purpose of mocking children with disabilities, for easy laughs.
You don't have to look very hard to find examples of public figures throwing the so-called R Word around with impunity. Political figures from both parties have done it, sometimes with apologies afterwards, sometimes not. Sports figures are pretty regular offenders as well. The entertainment industry has been the worst, particularly popular comedians like Ricky Gervais and Tracy Morgan, and their lack of contrition is probably the most revealing.
One of the most surprising defenses of using the R-word as an insult is the notion that the people in a position to be hurt don't even know they've been insulted, and therefore can't get hurt or really respond meaningfully. Not only is that sentiment awful, it’s awfully revealing. (It's also not entirely true.) In the entertainment industry and in the world of politics, I suspect that the degree of the offense is largely determined by the power of the group being offended. Power as defined by purchasing power, political power, the power to organize and fundraise, the power to withdraw financial support, the power to boycott and to vote. The power to be heard.
So who's going to make our kids heard? Who will speak up for our loved ones, for the adults that they become?
It may just be a word. But words matter. They matter very, very much.