Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Parallel Thoughts

Here is a link to a news article entitled "Insensitivity to Handicapped Individuals Demeaning" by Aaron Fichtelberg

It hits home in terms of his attempts at educating others about the unnecessary, callous, ignorant usage of the words "retard" and "retarded". 

I will copy and paste below for those who do not care to link to the original document...

It's going to happen again today. Somebody is going to publicly humiliate my disabled son.

It may be somebody I respect and admire, but it's just as likely to be one of my students or some snot-nosed teenager posting anonymously online. It could even be a close friend or coworker.

They'll call somebody a "retard" or "retarded." They'll say it to a friend over the phone in public. They'll post it on Facebook. They'll send it to me in a text. They'll use it in an answer for a question on my midterm. They'll be oblivious to what they're saying.

It's an easy word to say and it's just as easy to forget what it means. I used to say it too. I was probably worse than most people-for cheap laughs I would bend my wrist and tap it to my chest in mockery of a person with cerebral palsy. The first fight my wife and I got into happened when we were dating; I made a crack about "riding the short bus."

However, shortly after my son was born, when his body began twitching and convulsing during the seizures that shredded his brain, I very quickly learned how wrong, how stupidly wrong, I was. Because of my personal actions before my son Theo was born, I can't sit on a high horse and act like I am better than others, but I can be completely aggravated that somebody is insulting a sweet, innocent child who never did a single thing to them.

A person who called someone a racist or homophobic term would be publicly disgraced if they were discovered. A student who painted his face black and shuffled his way across the stage during a student event would probably be expelled. But luminaries like Jon Stewart, Ben Stiller and even Barack Obama can take a swipe at the disabled in front of millions, without suffering any real consequence.

The n-word is a hate crime. "Retard" is a punch line.

Racist and homophobic language is bad, but at least a black man can stand up for himself and fight back against his accuser. A gay man can turn the word "fag" into a term of pride if he's courageous enough. The intellectually disabled can do neither of these things. They take the ridicule and abuse, and according to crime statistics, they are far more likely to be physically or sexually abused than other people are. Stories of caretakers at homes for the disabled organizing "cripple fights" and jokes about "slapping a retard" casually told to me by unknowing and uncaring people keep me awake at night, paralyzed in fear of the fate that may await my son when I can't protect him.

My son, Theo, is a sweet kid who is always full of smiles-for those who get to know him. He loves hugs and tickle fights. He can smile and splash in the pool for hours and will spontaneously hug his twin brother Oliver-whether he wants it or not. He is a kind, loving human being. Like all other kids, he can also be a pain; however, that's the point: he's human just like you and me. To see only his disability is to miss so much. To mock his disability is to be inhumanly cruel.

Bill Maher once said that he wasn't referring to the intellectually disabled when called an opponent retarded. South Park tried to do something similar with the term "faggot" a while ago-trying to give it a meaning that wasn't a slur on homosexuals. I doubt Maher was being honest, but even if he were, it's beside the point. Despite what Kyle and Cartman might think, we don't always get to determine the meanings of the language we use. Society understands that when we insult somebody by calling them a retard, we are linking them with the intellectually disabled. This makes these people laughable, pathetic and even sub-human. Nobody ever uses slang terms for the disabled as a compliment.

I know that many college students are oblivious to the hurtful language they use and will dismiss what I'm saying as "politically correct" whining. Most individuals have not been fortunate enough to know or love somebody with an intellectual disability, to understand their challenges and their joys. But before you call your friend a "retard" or describe your least favorite professor-or perhaps this article-as "retarded," remember that there are human beings out there who live in the shadow of that word. How we speak about our fellow human beings says more about us than it does about them.


  1. Brad and I have had a lot of conversations about that word lately. It does take on new meaning when it affects you directly. We had someone ask us what the big deal was. I posted this on my facebook, because I think it explains it so well. Where does that play group meet? We live in Hanover, so there's not much around here.

  2. We go to Hanover every so often for dinner and a movie since it is so much cleaner than West Manchester's theater. We are in Dover, also somewhat off the beaten path. Playgroup is the first Saturday of each month at a church right off of Roosevelt Ave which is off of Rt 30. I'd say it's a half hour from Hanover if you go the back way through Menges Mills and onto 30 from there.verges range from 6 months to like 7 years. Everyone is very nice, and I have only gone twice so far. Hope all is well.


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