I’ve been told several times this week than I’m being too sensitive. That the word “retard” isn’t offensive, and that I need to teach my daughter some resilience.
I need to teach Abby resilience? What many people coming to my last post didn’t realize is that is Abby isn’t my only child with special needs. She was the subject of that post because historically speaking, the word “retard” was reserved especially for people with Down syndrome. Everything I said also applies to my autistic son, Casey. My children don’t need to be taught resilience- they live it. The have endured more in their short lifetimes than most humans will in their entire lives. They embody it everyday as they face a world that does not bend around their needs. It can be too harsh on their senses, too quick for their language, and cruel beyond what you could imagine had you never walked beside them.
My children are made fun of. I’ve seen kids snicker as Casey geeks out on something. I’ve seen them point. I’ve seen them mimic him. Abby faces a world of pity. Don’t believe me? Come with me to any of her doctor’s appointments. Her pediatrician’s waiting room is shared with the obstetrics waiting room. On the surface, it’s a great idea. Pregnancy. Babies. Children. Yay! I watch the faces of some of the women as they recognize my daughter’s features. Some whisper quietly to the person they’re with. Some point. Some look at her with great pain and pity in their eyes. To the expectant mom in the waiting room, Abby is their worst case scenario.
In too many cases, my children are also the punchline to a joke. I see memes made out of people with disabilities- Down syndrome in particular. When I see a man wearing a superman costume being used as a punchline I see my daughter. I see her in the shape of his eyes, and the smile on his face.
Words are not just words. Words shape thoughts, thoughts shape people, people shape society. Society does not change unless it decides to fight against a word that has been used to harm. Complacency thrives when people stop trying to be empathetic. It breeds on people saying “You’re too sensitive” when they are ignorant to the reality the offended deal with on a daily basis. I’m constantly surprised by people who see the offense in racial and bigoted slurs, but see no harm in a word that degrades people who cannot speak for themselves. Why is a degrading word geared towards a group of disabled people any different than a degrading word that speaks of a group of people of a certain race or orientation?
Words have shaped how people view my children. They can give rise to empathy, to respect, to equality- but only if we stop putting up with the words that do the opposite. Words shape how the children on the playground approach my children, they make it okay for the person to post a hurtful meme of a man with Down syndrome, and the perpetuate the pity I see in the eyes of the expectant mother in the waiting room.
Words are not just words.
It’s not too sensitive to require a civilized society to act like one.