Susan's Blog

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

So Much More Than An IQ Score

I was gazing at my Nat’s face in the previous blog post and I thought, “Beautiful. You would never know that he is someone that some jerk could call “retarded.” I was thinking about Tropic Thunder, and all the latest uproar over the use of the “R” word, uproar that I have participated in. I thought now that perhaps there should be a different kind of slogan campaign to raise awareness about the nastiness of using the word “retarded” as a substitute for “stupid,” or “confusing,” or whatever, but not the way we have been merely shutting down the word itself.

Here is an example of why I don’t think the censure is all that effective. The other day I was at the beach and two young women walked by. One said, “I know! I’m so retarded!” I looked up and I said, “Don’t use that word. Please.”
She stared at me and I waited for what would come next. I was ready for a fight, actually aching for it. I could take her, I thought…
Her friend said, “I know. I’m always telling her that.”
My breathing started up again. But I wondered if the young woman had actually learned anything, other than being shamed. Was shame enough? Would she stop using the word, but still think it is a terrible thing to be retarded? And isn’t that the point we really want to get across, that there is nothing wrong with being retarded, cognitively impaired, developmentally delayed, or mentally challenged, or whatever? Just like there is nothing wrong with being autistic! But we don’t make everyone say, “neurologically challenged.”

How much more meaning this little interaction would have had if she could have gotten just a bit of all the wonder that is Nat. Now, of course, that would be impossible, because she would never get to know him in the brief time we had. And I don’t know how he would have felt about getting to know her, since she had such limited judgment as to reduce her own actions to such a narrow level.

So I got to thinking some more about the whole “retarded” thing. And I have to admit that the PC aspect of it does challenge me a little bit, because it does not really address our concerns. It does not educate the offender in a meaningful way. It merely seeks to close mouths against the word. It is authoritarian, rather than informative. It closes the subject, rather than to open a discussion and truly educate. Do we learn by being told, or by being helped to understand and then come to a more accurate conclusion? I submit it is the latter, Your Honor.

And the fact is, there is nothing wrong with the word itself, nothing wrong with being retarded. Some (actually, only one) of my best sons are retarded! Or at least, that’s how he tests on those meaningless tests psychologists use (if you ask me, it is the psychologists and others who fail to interpret Nat’s very depth of character who are —– well, you know).

It’s that the context has come to mean a put-down. What is wrong with the use of the word is that it seeks to reduce a person to one thing. And that is wrong to do, especially if it is done with nasty intent. (For example, when my husband says, ‘you’re just a big pile of sugar,’ I don’t mind it in the least. We both know that I’m more than that, but he is saying it with love and admiration. But when someone says, “Sugar buns,” as someone un-Ned called me in college, it is insulting and demeaning, as well as inaccurate.) But when you ridicule someone who can’t really think the way typically developing people can, and only see this particular ability as defining them, then that is making fun of that, dehumanizing the person.

It is not the word, that bothers me, exactly. It is the use of the word, the intent. It is even the way people say it, with the emphasis on the first syllable: “RE-tard.” Or, here in Boston, “RE-tahd.” I thought about Nat’s loveliness, and completeness as I looked at his picture and then thought: “The face of a retard,” as in the way ad campaigns put a face on a concept: “The face of hunger,” with a starving child, etc. But of course that would probably seem to some as horrible, when what I want to do is get them to think about the limited, narrow way we view people with cognitive disabilities. They are so much more than a test score.

How much power there would be in taking back the night, in owning that word rather than running from it. Why don’t we consider taking the Eleanor Roosevelt view of the thing, and declare that we cannot be offended except by our own permission?

It’s not what you think.


It’s much more than you think.


Think again.

What do you think?


I completely agree with you. If only I could get my 18 year old brother and his friends to see things the same way. I also feel the same away when people use the word “gay” as a putdown. “That’s gay.” It highly offends me.

— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at 11:25 pm

Another thoughtful and thought provoking post. I wish more people would take this approach.

— added by Niksmom on Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 10:02 am

Couple thoughts – When I was 12 or 13, I would say “that’s gay”, until my sister straightened me out, if you’ll pardon the pun. She said, “do you know anyone who’s gay? Can you see why that would be considered hurtful.” I did stop using that phrase, and moved onto “that’s SOOOO lame”, so did I really mature or was I still picking on the disabled?

Words hurt, especially when wielded by mean, ignorant people. I think we all start out ignorant, and in the best possible worlds, get enlightened. Sometimes, not so much.

You said just the right thing to that girl (I bet you were in the pink bathing suit, and she was obviously intimidated by your hotness), and her friend’s concurrence are positive signs that she may refrain from using that word. Let’s hope.

Gotta run, I’ve set aside some good quality time to start freaking about Hurricane Gustav. Hooty hoo – Lisa

— added by Anonymous on Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 11:28 am

I totally agree with what you said. That girl might refrain from using that “R” word in the future, she might not. I don’t think people TRULY “get it” until they are placed in the situation we are in. It is unfortunate because we know how truly wonderful our kids are. It’s really a shame that it is 2008 and we are still facing the same stereotypes from 60 years ago concerning our kids.

— added by Amy on Thursday, August 28, 2008 at 12:46 am

As a person with a brother in law who is severely epileptic and severely retarded; this is the only word we’ve ever used in our family to describe his conditions. But we never use these words to to describe Stevie. The words for that are funny, generous, thoughtful, especially sensitive. So while I completely agree with you regarding the girls on the beach…I’m not sure our family needs to begin using different language. It never feels like we are dehumanizing our much loved brother.

And as far as what do I think regarding the three choices. I’d say All of the Above…but then again, I’m prone to that when I like all the choices and can’t pick a favorite.

Thanks for a great post.

— added by Anonymous on Thursday, August 28, 2008 at 9:05 am

So maybe when I hear the word I should ask the person what it means? And then I can explain what it means to me … in both a positive and negative light. Because let’s be honest, it’s a little of both.

I like that approach. Instead of the whole authoritarian approach, focus on getting people to understand what it is they are referring to.

You are wise.

— added by Judith U. on Thursday, August 28, 2008 at 12:41 pm

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