Dear Friend Who Just Did The (R-word) Impression

Dear Friend,

I’ve known you a long time.  And I love you.  I really do.  A thoughtless comment on your part isn’t going to change that.   Because I know you are a good person.  I know you wouldn’t be deliberately hurtful to another.  You have been there for me through my life –my wedding, births, deaths, professional successes, the idiotic decisions I’ve made, and even those moments not fit for public discourse.  You’re a great person.  You make me laugh, and you are one of those friends who shows up.  You know what I mean — the people who don’t just ask what they can do, but just arrive when they’re supposed to.  That’s you, my friend.

But, oh, how I wish you  hadn’t just said what you said and did what you did.

Just a little while ago, we were having a great time.  We got a babysitter, cleaned up whatever substances the children smeared on us, and took off to remind ourselves that we are still capable of socializing with grownups.  At some point, somebody shared an amusing story or point.  And that’s when you did it.  You made a comment about “not being a retard” and then made a gesture I doubt you seriously considered.  You raised your hands and screwed up your face in a parody of a person with a neurological disorder/genetic condition/brain damage and altered your voice — doing the classic “retard” impression.  (The r-word – which we’ll call it from this point on.)

And here’s the thing.  I’ve seen you say and do that before.  Several times.   Times when I didn’t think too hard about it.  No, you would never tease an actual person with an intellectual disability like that.  But you’ve amused yourself and others many times in small group get-togethers – usually just making a quick joke about something being dumb.  But that was long before I gave birth to a sweet, beautiful, seemingly perfect baby boy who, at 3 1/2 years old still isn’t talking, won’t play with others, and takes no joy in toys of any kind.  That shook me to my core and altered everything I thought I knew about myself, humanity, unconditional love, and the evolution of personal strength.

So, coming from the perspective of a mother who is very likely someday going to hear someone tease her child cruelly, there is nothing – nothing – funny about that at all.

And here’s why.  It’s not because we’ve lost our sense of humor or the ability to laugh at ourselves or life.  It’s because we now personally know exactly how the mother of an intellectually disabled child would feel upon seeing you do that.  It’s because some of us personally know how painful that is to the heart of that same child.  Yes, they do know when they are being talked about.  They do know when they are being excluded.  So would a pet dog.  Yet they are not dogs, they are human beings.  And they deserve that respect.  They have worth.  Their lives have value.  They can be happy, be productive, and give joy to others.  And that’s just something you are not going to fully understand until the issue affects your life in a profound way.

So, friend, I’m going to ask you to do something for me.  I’m going to ask you to try to step outside of your own perspective and natural defensiveness and just trust me on this — this is another one of those Golden Rule kind of things.  When speaking of human beings, always go with respect for the dignity of the human soul.   That path will never steer you wrong.

40 thoughts on “Dear Friend Who Just Did The (R-word) Impression

  1. Anne Spence

    My 3 1/2 year-old son with autism has also changed everything about my life. Thank you so much for writing this. I hope the message goes far and wide.

  2. akbutler

    This post is so perfectly written.
    I hope your friend reads it. Not because I want her to be embarrassed or upset, but because you wrote this so eloquently and non-confrontationally, I just know that she would simply take it,think about it, and never say it again.
    Thank you for this post.

  3. Karla Clark

    I know that in the past I used the word retard or retarded when trying to make people laugh. I know that I made short bus jokes and thought nothing of it. Then 8 1/2 years ago I had an amazing little boy who just so happens to have the mental ability of a 4 year old. His speach is severly delayed and his fine motor skills are years behind his peers. With the devolpment of my own child I learned what the R word really means and how hurtful it can be. I think a lot of people don’t understand the word until they live with it everyday.

  4. Kris

    Oh, that breaks my heart. As the mother of a ‘different’ child, I so wish that people would not use the word retarded (or, for that matter, talk about ‘riding the short bus’) so casually and thoughtlessly. As you say, the Golden Rule and respect for the dignity of all people, large and small, go a long way in this world. Bravo–I love your blog and your apology post from the teacher’s perspective was particularly wonderful.

  5. Lisa

    This is exquisitely written. I hope your friend…and all of the friends out there…see this and step outside of themselves to see how hurtful it can be. Thank you for sharing….

  6. Lisa

    This was exquisitely written. Thank you. I hope your friend…and all of the friends out there who have done this get a chance to read this because you so adequately write about how it feels.

  7. Sandy Tilton

    I am guilty of using this word and behaving with insensitivity. You are right. It was not meant to be cruel to anyone. It is a bad habit that needs to be replaced with a good habit. Because of your sweet angel who makes me smile every time I see him (not all “normal” people can do that) and the brother of my daughter’s boyfriend, (he has Down’s and I swear he is one of the most quick witted people I have had the pleasure of knowing) I am learning to be more aware of my words and actions.
    This post reminds me of the day you caught 2 students bullying another student who was on the spectrum. They were teasing him about being a “retard.” You just sat them down in the breezeway at the school and explained how it made you feel…then you informed that this student far out-performed them in all areas of testing. You asked them if this student is ‘so dumb, yet he is clearly smarter than you, what does that make you?” They left a bit more humbled and I never witnessed them bullying that particular student again In fact, I think both of them were nicer all around.

  8. Lisa

    As always, I love your stuff, however I think you should definitely have Kleenex advertising on your page. I never leave it without shedding a tear.

    1. Profile photo of FlappinessIsFlappinessIs Post author

      Sorry. LOL You know, it’s kind of ironic. I’m not much of a cry baby, and I refuse to read books or watch movies that make me sad. You wouldn’t think I would write overly emotional stuff, but I guess it’s how I get it out.

  9. Bethany S.

    I have had this discussion with MANY people before. I’ve actually had someone use it casually in conversation and called the next morning to apologize (and I had actually forgotten they even used it).

    With me, it does bother me. The first couple of times, I may let it slide and here’s why. When I was growing up, unfortunately (A BIG TiME unfortuately), it was part of the slang, it really was. I think I have even said it in the past, which makes me feel very sad. But, after a couple of passes, I call people on it. Not in a “You shouldn’t say that!” tone, more like a “My son has special needs and that hurts me tone” so they see it for what it does to a real person.

    Now, if this person is a real fried, the next time they go to do this thing, or say this word, they’ll think about it.

    I’m sorry this happened to you. We all, in this community, have to deal with this on a daily basis, we don’t need “extras” to compact our days!!

  10. sakilgore

    This was beautifully stated. It’s not about attacking those (often our family and friends) who use the r-word…it’s about educating them and bringing awareness to the faces and families behind the word. I’ve found that when people make that connection, both in their head and in their hearts, they become more conscious not only of their own words…but to the words of their peers.

  11. Niksmom

    I know this pain and wish I’d had the grace to state my case as eloquently, and respectfully, as you do here. Thanks. I sincely hope your friend finds her grace, too.

  12. Kelly Hafer

    Another wonderful post; you never disappoint on that. This post, however, THIS POST is special. It is WONDERFUL. It is respectful and true. I”ll be sharing the hell out of this. Thank you.

    1. Profile photo of FlappinessIsFlappinessIs Post author

      Thank you!

      And, Kelly, since it’s you, I have to wonder…. Do Squatches feel the same way about the term “Bigfoot”? It’s kind of derogatory, if you think about it. 😉

  13. Laurel

    Bang on, thank you. Such a harmful judgemental word. That said, I admit to using it (out of my kids’ presence) with people who hide their intolerance behind politically correct languaging – ie when I’m told “We feel that your son’s developmental challenges are not a good fit for our classroom”, my response is “Ah, so the retard isn’t welcome in your classroom.”. If you’re going to treat our kids like village idiots don’t try and cover it up with gentle words, we’re on to you. Cleaning up our language is the first step, but the accompanying prejudices have to go to. Hooray for all of you parents who are leading the charge!

    1. strangerinmyskin

      I can’t help but feel that’s a little double standard. You want people not to say it but you will throw it out at your whim? It’s derogatory either way you realise.
      Imagine if your son walked in on you speaking that way.

  14. Jessica (@jessbwatson)

    Such an amazing post. I too have heard it said from people I consider friends and it is so hard to get past it. Somehow, when I see them know I hear that word coming out of their mouths first and it is hard to get past it and have a conversation.

  15. Andrea

    Even my sister uses this word from time to time to refer to something stupid her dogs have done. I call it on her every time and remind her that it hurts me because of her nephew’s issues. I know she loves him and it is done because that word has become casually incorporated in the conversation of her friends. Hoping to make a difference not just with her, but with her friends who use it as well. Waiting for the day she asks them not to use it!

  16. Katherine Gordy Levine

    As a Cranky Old Lady, I have started calling people out on such comments. If they don’t like it, I smile sweetly and say “Suck it up Buttercup. It doesn’t just demean others, it demeans you. Friends don’t let friends do that.”

    Anyway, a personal request. My book Parents Are People Too is about to electronic. It is an Emotional Fitness Program for parents. I would love to send you a copy to review. You can let me know if you are interested at Emotfit@live.com.

    Kat

  17. christy prier

    As a mother of a 19 yr old son I have dealt with this mentality for years. Thank you for putting into words what I could not.

  18. Tina

    I’m tired of people trying to control ME, especially those with autistic children. I will not change my words, songs, food choices, etc. to make you happy, or to cater to your childs ever changing whims. The world is big, and you can not control everyone in it. It is better for children to recognize that sooner, than later.

    1. Profile photo of FlappinessIsFlappinessIs Post author

      M’am, I don’t believe that I recommended any legislation to “control” you – nor would I. Instead, I was appealing to you to control yourself when tempted to say or do things that cause pain to others. Your food choices and preference in music are irrelevant to me and my child. But I sincerely doubt that not wanting to be called a retard is an “ever changing whim” of any human being. I sincerely hope that you do not ever have the misfortune of having to experience what we – through our children – do every day. It is a pain I would not wish on anyone, even you. But I do hope that you will one day have an opportunity to step outside of yourself and your obviously limited personal experience and develop some compassion for your fellow human beings. To whom much is given, much is expected. In this case, not calling mentally disabled children “retards” isn’t expecting much, I think. Best wishes to you and yours.

      1. Katy

        I remember one day in the parking lot a couple packed up their bags into their car and decided to leave their cart in the next parking spot instead of returning it two spots down to the cart alley. It was a busy lot with people hunting for spots and they were perfectly abled without even the excuse of a car load of kids. In fact, they didn’t have any with them. When I suggested they might want to show some consideration and move their cart, they swore at me and said I could do it myself. Unfortunately, there are selfish, rude people in the world. I am afraid that Tina is one of them. There is always hope that they will change.

        Your post was spot on, by the way.

        And I get it. You described my son perfecty.

    2. jillsmo (@jillsmo)

      You mean it’s better for my child to realize that you’re a b***h and that people like you exist in this world? Yeah, I’m doing my best to prepare him for people like you. Thanks for validating the need for my efforts.

  19. tattoomummy

    I’m not the mother of a mentally disabled child, but I have a second cousin who is and it still upsets me when I see it. My 18 year old sister does it frequently because she just doesn’t think, but that is upsetting because it’s not that hayd to think. Bullying is never tolerated yet this is still seen as funny really makes me sad for society. X

  20. Patty

    I love this post. You so eloquently put into words what I feel. And as someone who used to say this word a lot in my teens and twenties, I appreciate the awareness that is being spread. I stupidly and thoughtlessly used this word in front of an acquaintance whose sister had Down Syndrome when I was in college. I was mortified and felt terrible how insensitive I had been. After that, I tried really hard not to use the word in that way. Now, as a mom of a kid on the spectrum, I understand firsthand how painful it is when your child is referred to that way. So, I can see both sides. But I think anyone with feelings and compassion would try to be careful of the words they use, especially after realizing how painful it is to others.

  21. thisisthecraftyone

    Like many, In the past I have been guilty of using “the R word”, having two close family members on the spectrum it is something I no longer do as an adult. And I do try and “check” my friends on it. I sometimes wonder of things were better explained to people, like the effect our words (however well meant/in jest at the time) can have on others around us, if it will ever change. But I think sadly, there are too many people out there who simply don’t care enough. There’s always hope though!

  22. Neurotic Iraqi mom

    Wow, this post gave me goose bumps. Your friend sounds very similar to someone very very close to my heart. And it hurts. It really does. Especially when it comes from someone so dear…

  23. Parenting Extra }|{ (@ParentingExtra)

    Wow! What a beautiful, loving message. You must really care about your friend. I don’t use this word, but I’m sure I use other words, or phrases, carelessly. I hope I’m lucky enough to have someone as gentle as you to put me right, next time I step out of line. Also, I agree with Lisa, Kleenex could make a fortune here!

  24. Megan

    I have a coworker that still says it despite me repeatedly telling her that it’s not right. It was a word I cut out of my own vocabulary, so I get it. Grew up saying it, but that doesn’t make it right! I feel the pain of it now. I actually did correct a patient in my office after he said it in front of me for the third time!! He revealed that his wife was a spec. Ed teacher. Seriously?? How could not know how wrong that is??

  25. Jim Hooker

    Well young lady, you have hit this old man where it hurts. It pains me to admit that I have, in the past, been guilty of using ” the R word.” What makes it especially painful is that I know that sweet little man in your life & it has made me realize how painful hearing someone speak this way would be to you & others. I apologige to you. I have taken the cure & promise not to do it again.

    1. Profile photo of FlappinessIsFlappinessIs Post author

      Aww, how sweet of you to reply like this. I think for most people it is simply a joke they don’t really think about. I’ve used the word and short bus joke myself before I was aware of it. Don’t feel bad. Feel good for making the change. That’s all we really need. :) And I look forward to attending more Hooker reunions and other activities involving Hookers. 😉

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