“Emily’s brother’s retarded.” My 3rd grade daughter got into the car after school one day saying she had overheard these words in her classroom. I could tell she didn’t want to be hurt by them but she had a sense that they were unkind. She asked what they meant. What should I tell her? . . . I knew the moment was important. So after a long pause I said that the words were in fact true. Retarded means to be slowed up, to not progress as fast as you’d expected or hoped, like traffic can be retarded if there has been an accident. I explained that there might be people who would chose to refer to her Down syndrome brother using a word like that, said in kind of a mean way, but that I felt like it was best for us to choose not to be hurt by it because, though they weren’t using it exactly that way, there was some truth in it.
I had felt that pinch. There are forms that people like county health nurses and school counselors fill out with a bunch of categories to check off in little boxes. I remember the first time I saw someone blithely put a check mark next to the box for “MR” in an evaluation of my son. I was just about to ask what that stood for but then realized that I knew . . . “mentally retarded”. I remembered calling people by that designation in elementary school, not meant to be cruel but not certainly meant as a compliment. Now it was describing my child – and it was official. In our previous childish way it was a distant insult – now it was a fact, and it hit pretty close to home. That’s when I’d had to confront my feelings about simple words.
That day in the car seemed like it might be my daughter’s moment to make her choice about how words can make you feel. I knew she’d have a lot more confrontations with the use of this one word in particular so she may as well decide right away how she would react to it. Her first chance to field the darts that words can be – – would it make her embarrassed by her brother or would she be able to embrace the reality and accept his differences? I think their picture shows what her decision was and that he feels it.
This is all not to say that words and labels don’t have any effect. I hear people use the word “retarded” when all they mean is that their nails didn’t dry properly or that the sidewalk is uneven. Quite honestly, I can’t help but take notice, though just as quickly I remind myself that it’s not being said to equate my son with “improper” or “useless”. And I know that people have no ill intent at all based on my own experience in childhood. But just as perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s family might have developed a sensitivity when someone talked about “assassination” as relating to something as intangible as someone’s character; it can’t help but feel a little more personal and a little more real when someone you love fits the category.
The sweet video below was made by the sister of a classmate of my Down syndrome son. If ever you wanted to see a sister’s love shine through you’ll want to take a minute and see what she says about the use of words. Another time maybe I’ll write about my son having a long-standing, huge crush on this adorable classmate . . . but for now I know you’ll enjoy the demonstration of “from the mouths of babes” in this: