I can’t. I cringe every time I hear the word. My thoughts just stop, and in that moment I’m numb. I know I’m no one’s mother, and I know I can’t erase the word from everyone’s vocabularies. I just want people to stop and think about what they say when that disgusting word leaves their lips. It breaks my heart, but I don’t freak out on the person when they don’t know any better (but they do know better). I calmly say, “That’s not a nice word,” and usually people can see/ feel how much that word hurts me. What’s your intention when you call someone or something “retarded”? There’s something wrong with you if you can’t figure out another word to describe your frustration.
My godson Gerry just turned 12 years old. He has Down syndrome. I’m sure you’ve heard of it but might not know what it even means. I can’t lie and say I even knew what that was before he was born. Doctors don’t know why babies are born with an extra 21st chromosome, but they do know it’s not hereditary. One in every 691 babies in the the U.S. is born with Down syndrome, making it the most common genetic condition. In 1910, the life expectancy of a child with Down Syndrome was 9 years old. Today, 80 percent of adults with Down syndrome live to reach their 60s and even pass it. Like anyone else, each person with Down Syndrome has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Gerry can’t talk yet; he’s being taught sign language and uses his iPad to communicate what he wants and how he feels. You’ll know when he’s happy or sad or wants more of something. He gets better at communicating every day! It’s amazing how much he’s learned since he went to a new school. Gerry changed my life and his family’s lives. He’s hilarious and he loves to play and run and hug people. Oh, and he loves his Spongebob DVDs. He greets everyone when he walks in and out of a room, and he never forgets a face.
I remember one time when I was very young and at a park with my brother. It was time to go so we were piling in the car and I didn’t notice who else was at the playground until I was sitting still in my car. There was a little boy who had Down syndrome and was playing with either his sister or friend. He was kneeling down in the rubber mulch and had sneakers on. There were three other kids around him asking him to count how many toes he had. The little boy seemed excited to show he knew how to count while the other kids made fun of him and teased him that he didn’t automatically know how many toes he had. Every time I hear someone use the R-word I think about how hurtful this moment was to watch. When you use that word, you’re hurting people like my Godson and that boy at the park, and everyone who is their friend or family. To this day, I wish I’d jumped out of my car and said something to those kids.
Don’t feel bad for Gerry, though. He’s the luckiest little boy. He has an amazing mom and dad and two extraordinary brothers who help protect him. His whole town knows him and greets him whenever they see him. He’s being taught by aides and teachers who genuinely care for him and his education.
It’s time to grow up. I’m not saying I’m a saint, but one thing I can do is lend a hand in spreading the word to end the word. I feel strongly about this, and I can promise you I always will. I gave a pledge to not use the R-word. Sign here and take the pledge too.
A version of this post first appeared here: