Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Sarah, Rahm, and "Retarded"

I'm sure lots of you have been hearing about Rahm Emanuel using the word "retarded" recently and Sarah Palin's Facebook response. If not, you're hearing about it here.

Let me say upfront that I am not a fan of Sarah Palin. Though I'm not sure that I'm really a fan of Rahm Emanuel either.

But politics aside, Sarah is a mom of a child with special needs, so her perspective in this situation cannot be denied. Having a child with developmental delays myself, I understand Sarah taking offense to Rahm's use of this word. And I actually appreciate her speaking up about this misuse.

However, in all honesty, I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that prior to the birth of her son, at some time in her adult life, Sarah used the word "retarded" in much the same way. Why am I willing to make such a bold wager? Well, because I used to use this word this way!

I've written about this before but it's buried deep in this blog. So let me state it again. Before Soren was born, "retarded" was part of my vocabulary as an adjective used in place of "stupid" or "dumb." For me, "retarded" had more "Zing!" so to speak. It seemed like more of a rebellious word. And I'm quite the rebel.

Then, after Soren's delays became known, I actually CONTINUED to use it! With some defiance, I must say. I was, like, "You're not taking that word from me just because my son has developmental delays!"

Guess I was the one who really had a lot to learn.

As Soren's delays continued and I became more immersed in the special needs community, I began to accept how inappropriate and hurtful this word is, even when folks say it casually like I used to. For those of us combating the diagnosis of "Mental Retardation," or "MR" as it's commonly referred to, this word has deep resonance. And its misuse is like a knife in the gut.

Most people I know merely use the word the way Rahm did. As an adjective. But because I used to say, "That's so retarded" for years, when I hear others say it now, I just let it slide.

But then there are the times it's used as a noun, as in, "What a retard." Now that one REALLY gets me. It's really hard NOT to say something.

But it's also almost impossible for me TO say something. My fear is making people feel uncomfortable or awkward about my situation. Or making them self-conscious when they speak around me. I was actually in the hair salon today writing this and overheard a woman say it! But I said nothing. I just took the hit and let the wound heal.

And while I agree with Sarah speaking out about this, I disagree with her comparing "Retarded" to the "N-word." Now this is a personal issue, so maybe that's REALLY how she feels. But I don't really think so. I think her comparing "Retarded" to the "N-word" just guaranteed it to stand out more when the press picked up the story.

For me, the two words incomparable. In my life, the "N-word" was always meant as a slur. It always meant as mean and hateful. But "Retarded" has had more of an evolution into its current "inappropriate" status.

I liken "Retarded" to the word "Gay." Now when I was young, lots of people, including me, said, "That's so gay." And it was, obviously, meant as an insult. Well, as the years passed, people began to realize that the gay community takes offense at using this word this way! And rightly so! Thus people in general have stopped using "Gay" in this manner.

So, yes, I am glad that Sarah Palin spoke up about this. Awareness must be raised that the casual use of this word can be very hurtful to people. Maybe this is a step in that direction.


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