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Our Daughter Penny and the Word Retarded

When Penny was three-weeks old, I was on the phone, telling the story of her birth to a friend. I had gone over all those details so many times by that point, it was a relief to ask her the question, "How are you?" She talked about their kids, and then moved on to the frustration of having a husband who couldn't remember to recycle. "I mean," she said, "what is he, retarded?" She kept talking, but I didn't hear anything else. All I could think was, No. Your husband with a college degree and a Masters in History is not retarded. But my daughter is.It happens all the time. I'm at dinner and someone drops a fork: "I'm so retarded!" Or, on a bus with a group of kids who are jostling, laughing, teasing each other: "You're such a retard!" Or, listening to a speaker—a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company—address a roomful of high school students: "You have to remember that when I was a freshman in college I was retarded," he said, in reference to his attitude toward members of the opposite sex. The doctors who gave us the news that Penny had Down syndrome offered two guarantees: low muscle tone and mental retardation. Mental retardation. It's a medical diagnosis intended to help evaluate a person's ability to navigate the world. Ideally, labeling someone "mentally retarded" guarantees support—therapeutic, medical, social, educational, vocational support—from the community. And yet, rather than remaining within the clinical context, these words have become a casual term of self-deprecation and derision. The Special Olympics has designated today, March 3, as a day to promote awareness about the hurtful use of "the r-word." At www.r-word.org, over 77,000 people have pledged to "support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities." The Special Olympics has been criticized for trying to ban a word (see "The Case Against Banning the Word Retarded"), and plenty of people shrug their shoulders at what seems to be one more sign of rampant political correctness. And yet, language at its best conveys something true about reality. Early on in Penny's life, we made the switch from calling her a "Down's baby" to a "baby with Down syndrome." Her existence as our child came first. Her diagnosis came second.And when it comes to the word retarded, the same point holds. I could argue that my friend didn't mean anything when she used that word to describe her husband. It was just a way to express frustration. She certainly didn't mean to hurt us. But about a year after Penny was born, that same friend and I were having dinner. She'd gotten to know our daughter. She had heard about the joys and struggles and complications that can come with a diagnosis of mental retardation. At dinner, her eyes filled at one point and she reached across the table. "I've used the word retarded all my life, and I'm really trying to get it out of my vocabulary. I'm sorry for anytime I've said it to you." That was all I needed. Not for every word out of her mouth to become politically correct. But for her to want her language to reflect her understanding of the world, which included an understanding of our family. I needed her language to reflect her heart. The Special Olympics campaign is not about banning a word. It's about caring for people. People who laugh and play and cry and struggle. People like our daughter. People like Penny.

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