Saturday, August 2, 2008

Oh the words we use...

On the blog Pinwheels today was posted an article about the use of the word "retard." In my classroom we have launched a campaign to eradicate the use of this insult from our school. It's a long, slow process that is about to become much more difficult with the upcoming release of a new movie starring Ben Stiller and Robert Downey, Jr. I won't glorify it further by mentioning the title here but in short, the movie pokes fun at people with disabilities with abandon and liberal use of the word "retard." The term even appears on the movie's advertising poster ("Once upon a time there was retard..." Give me a break!). My only hope is that our little local theater probably won't be showing it, although I'm sure it will appear in Wichita unless someone influential makes a big stink about it. It's also rated R, although that doesn't seem to stop too many of the middle schoolers at our school. Now, I'm not one to advocate boycotting a movie before seeing it or a book without reading it, but I'm willing to make an exception in this case based on the premise and the promotions.

As I read through the linked blog entries, comments, and discussions, I was continually amazed at the reports of people who would use this horrid term, then be embarrassed when they realized it was overheard by someone with a disability or someone who loves a person with a disability. More appalling, still, are the number of people who use the term everywhere, all the time, without thought. We have a therapist who works with my kids on a weekly basis who uses the term! Of all people, you would think she would realize how ugly it is. Why do people think it is OK to make fun of those with disabilities? Is it because they don't "bite back?" Do we need our own version of Jesse Jackson and the NAACP to help us out? There have been numerous movies that portray people with disabilities in a wonderful, sympathetic, and even humorous light. Forest Gump, The Other Sister, I Am Sam, and even Rainman are just a few of them. Unfortunately, most of the things that get remembered from even the best of these films are the stereotypically "disabled" things: perservated speech, misspoken words, odd behaviors.

Then there are those who say, "oh, she can't understand what we're saying anyway." WRONG! Read this post by Dave Hinsburger for a different perspective on that notion. I know first hand that the kids I work with "get it." They all have "functional levels" (whatever the heck that means) below 36 developmental months, not that we really use that information for anything except pleasing the psychologists, and yet they know they are different and there are things they cannot do. Some of them get angry when they are left out or excluded. Others simply don't give a damn and merrily march on their way. They have no time or energy to spare for those who don't, or won't, understand them and accept them. And, for the most part, my gang are pretty well insulated from the hatemongers and the ignorant. Yes, we get stares out in the community. There are people who change their seats in restaurants because of us and those who jerk their children away as though we might be contagious. But there are so many more who stop to open doors, hold elevators, or move out of the accessible seats at the movie theater. The ones who smile sympathetically when we apologize for someone's "inappropriate social behavior" (a.k.a "I don't WANT to go in that store!" or "I am NOT carrying that grocery bag I don't care what you say" or "I want OUT OF MY WHEELCHAIR and I don't care we're in the middle of a parking lot/grocery store/other inconvenient place; that's not MY problem!"). The people I love the most are those who stop to talk, not just to us but to our kids. And the ones who let us educate their children about people with disabilties. Oh, and the guy who came over in the pouring rain and loaded a wheelchair in the back of the van for us. LOVE him!

I have no idea if anyone out there in blog land is even reading my posts, but I hope you are. And if you do, I hope you will follow me in continuing the campaign being launched around the country to stop the use of this ugly word. If you do read this blog, leave a comment about what you will do to stop the spread of this term. I think I'm actually going to make a giant poster here on my week off and post it outside my room and include a pledge sheet and see how many signatures I get. I may use some of the writing from the pledge site and some of what I originally wrote for our district newsletter but never got published:

We don’t even think about it. Out pops, “That’s so retarded!’ or “You’re such a retard.” Ever stop to think about exactly what that means? A recent incident on the popular reality TV show Big Brother has highlighted this issue. In this instance a person who supposedly works with children with autism referred to them as “retards.” Others took offense, and rightly so. Who could argue with the fact that you should not call a person with a disability such a derogatory name? But what about all the other ways this term is used? The term “retarded” has gained such a negative connotation that even those of us who work in one of the many disability-related fields refuse to use it even to describe a person’s disability. Many of us equate the term with other derogatory words that are so ugly and impolite we can’t even utter them without embarrassment: racial slurs such as the “n” word, or curse words such as the “f” word, etc. Why is it wrong to refer to a person with mental retardation as a “retard,” after all the term is a semi-accurate description of a disability, but OK to use the same term to describe other people and things in a negative fashion? Some of the brightest minds I know belong to people with cognitive disabilities. As one parent I work with states, “We may be slow but we’re not stupid.” It is far past time to eliminate this ugly word from our vocabulary. Think about it.


  1. I just found your blog. I teach students with disabilities - they are the very youngest, ages, 3-5.

  2. Wow! A comment! Yay! Hello, Cathy. Thanks for commenting. You made my day. :)

  3. Alicia,
    I love what you have done with your room. I teach a similar class to yours, in elementary school. We have four students and 2 full time aides. I am going to send a link to your blog to my AT person to show them what you have done with your smart board. Mine is on the wall and my kids can't access it to use it as a touch screen. You also seem to have way more AT equipment than I do, which I think I need to do something about :)

    Thanks for blogging!