What’s Missing in R-Word Debate

On Faith at washingtonpost.com, August 29, 2008

A few weeks ago, during a trip to the beach, two young women walked by me and I heard one say, “…Oh! I’m so retarded!”

I cringed, and thought of Nat, my 18-year-old cognitively impaired son and I said to her, “Don’t use that word. Please.”

She stared at me and I waited. What came next surprised me. Her friend said, “I know. I’m always telling her that.”

My breathing started up again and I turned away. 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?

How much more meaning my little beach interaction would have had if that woman could have understood, instead, even a little bit of all the wonder that is Nat. I wished for a second that he had been there with me, with his shaggy rock star hair and dazzling smile. I could have said, “This is what ‘retarded’ looks like. This is a young man who would test cognitively impaired, or ‘retarded.’ This kid who holds two jobs, had a bar mitzvah, taught his younger brother how to use a shower, and is now training for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 5K race. Retarded. Now who’s the limited one here?”

The fact is, there is nothing wrong with the word, and there is nothing wrong with being retarded. What is wrong is when someone seeks to reduce a person to one thing. You can tell by the emphatic, deliberately incorrect way people say it, with the emphasis on the first syllable: “RE-tard.” The way they spit it out like it’s poison in their mouths.

But when I think about Nat’s loveliness and complexity and I realize that, because of his IQ, others may indeed miss that entirely, I feel it like a knife in my heart. Because Nat is so much more than a test score, or an arrangement of chromosomes. Nat is a regular person, neither idiot nor angel, with flaws and virtues like all of us. I, like all mothers, want others to really know him and to love him, not to revile him.

So I got to thinking some more about the case against the word “retarded,” especially in light of the recent uproar over the movie “Tropic Thunder”. And I really feel that the campaign to stop using the “R” word just does not get at the heart of things. Pure censure is something people feel in their heads, in their shame-reddened faces. But do they feel it in their souls? Can they try to understand that there’s not just one way to be, that God works in mysterious ways, as they say, and that you never know how a person — whether retarded or Rhodes Scholar — might affect you at your core. Understanding that will make a difference..

Maybe, instead of stamping out the “R” word, we could come up with a tag line that gets the offenders to think, for a change. A new slogan, something like: “‘Retarded.’ It’s more than you know.” After all, there is far more power in facing something, naming it, and confidently owning it, than there is by running from it. After all, we are much more than our IQ score.