The “R” Word


By Susan Lutz for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers

I stopped the cart and wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry.

“My brother has three retarded kids,” a man said as my son, Addison, and I passed him in the canned food section of the grocery store. Addison was sitting in a fire truck shopping cart meant for toddlers. He was eight. He tried to beep the horn, but it didn’t work.

I paused. I turned to look at the man. He smiled and told me he really felt for me. “My brother has three of them,” he said again, as if we were talking about cars.

I made a sound I can only describe as a sputtering chuckle. Should I smile and say thank you? Did he just give me a compliment? Or was it an insult?  Retarded. I cringe at the sound of it. The tone is harsh. Retarded. Images appear in my head of poor, sad victims.

I don’t always have time for an educational lesson on the proper use of the “R” word. Campaigns run across television and the Internet to practice compassion and an end to the “R” word, that unspeakable and degrading term used to refer to people with disabilities. Retarded. I looked at the man’s weathered face. I guessed he was in his late sixties. His cart didn’t have much in it. He just kept staring at us. I felt like my feet were glued to the floor.

When Addison was born, I was given a list of characteristics that were consistent with t21, or Down syndrome: low muscle tone, round flat face, almond-shaped eyes, a palmar crease, eye folds, mental retardation, small ears and flat nape of neck. The “R” word nestled in the group like dish soap on a grocery list. There’s always room to educate, but sometimes it feels preachy and weird. Sometimes even I use the “R” word. Medical or educational moments exist when I can find no substitute. I guess the problem comes with the intent.

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