A Retarded Conversation

posted Friday January 13th, 2012

The phone rang early this morning. It was my friend Deborah.

“Hey, sorry I didn’t call earlier in the week,” she said. “I’ve been snowed in.”

“Literally or figuratively?” I asked, still half-asleep even though I’d been up long enough to make two Carnation Instant Breakfast shakes, a pot of coffee, a sack lunch and a ballet bun.

“Huh?” she asked. We both live in Tempe. I knew the answer. Sorry, I explained. I’d been watching the news, lots of people snowed in on the East Coast.

Plus I’d been thinking about that whole literal versus figurative thing after a Facebook conversation yesterday about word choice. I fired off a quick status update midday, something I was grappling with after realizing I’d used the word “lame” in a story I was writing for work.

So we know not to use the words gay or retard. What about lame?

If I was serious about it (which I was/am) it was a dumb stupid short-sighted silly (is silly ok?) place to launch such a discussion, which quickly devolved, in the way most Facebook conversations do. This time into an exchange of “acceptable” words like asshat (I do like that one), fukbubble and dickhole (really, I’m not kidding). I was right there with my friends. And to be fair to all of us, there was a point to it.

Just what is an acceptable insult?

(“Acceptable insult.” Did I just type that? Isn’t love, sweet love what the world needs now, you’re asking, rather than acceptable insults? Nah, fuck that, I say. I need some good insult words!)

The conversation then turned to context and intent, and while I appreciate that, I started to get impatient. Um, no duh people, I thought. We’re talking about these words as insults, not simply as words. (Literal versus figurative, right?)

Don’t take my words away! One friend cried rather dramatically. He’s a great guy, and one inclined to push the argument for the sake of the argument. But I couldn’t help but want to ask my friend (who happens to be Latino) him how he feels when he hears someone say, “How Mexican!” And not in a good way.

Of course it’s all about context. But even then it’s not that simple.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about literal versus figurative,” I explained to Deborah in the context of my sleepy snow comment, then told her about the Facebook discussion.

I’d been wishing yesterday that William Safire was still alive, but really, Deborah is just as good. She’s wicked smart — no one’s ever called Deborah retarded.

“Words aren’t black or white,” she said. “They’re gray.” And there are endless layers beyond just the literal versus the figurative. That’s the reason that after more than 8 and a half years of grappling with the term retarded, I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this whole word thing, within the context of my role as the mom of a kid with Down syndrome.

For a while after Sophie was born, I used the term mentally retarded a lot — in its literal form. Then testing showed Sophie didn’t techincally qualify as MR. I stopped using it so much. Now more testing says that Sophie does, in fact (if you believe the school psychologist, and that’s a whole other story), fit the medical definition of mentally retarded — and I see that, in fact, she is slower than most of us. I watch her struggle to learn, celebrated that the Ds on her report card for math and English last fall were a C and a C- on last week’s report card. And that’s with an incredible amount of extra support.

And so the word retarded has an extra tough zing these days.  

Grades aren’t the only measure of mental capacity, Deborah warned me. “It’s not all about being book smart,” she said. I know that. But it’s nice to be reminded.

I’d like to speed up the conversation, get to the answer. But I feel like I’m swimming through pudding, most days.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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Tags: Filed under: culture, Down syndrome by Amysilverman

5 Responses to “A Retarded Conversation”

  1. I’m going blind from a genetic issue, thanks mom and dad, these are people that don’t’ talk about it…
    I’m ok when I use the term blind, would you help be here I have a visual problem, yet get my hair up when someone else jokes about what I can or can’t see. Can’t you see THAT – ‘no’.
    What well find that seeing eye dog of yours: don’t have one and can see well enough for most daily tasks.
    Hurt feelings arise, I’m 57 if it were my kid I’d really have that grizzle going on. I have decide this year to truly try and not to take it all so personal, every person, and situation is different.

    My son had he survived would be a 12 year old special needs boy, so my heart is learning from reading your thoughts. Oh, the material I could give you on parenting a dead kid, and I do, is different parenting yet a topic all on its own. The grief / dead kid topic has really had a beat up even now in the elections, so it is a daily swim.

    Bless you Amy for all you share, hugs from Joel’s mom
    Nancy Grayson

    Your friends are terrific to read about too, let me know if your all out for margaritas sometime, first hand listening would make my day.

  2. I am old in this Amy…you probably vaguely remember my history. I’m the kind they call “drunk” or “druggie” or nicely or otherwise “alcoholic”. I’ve been called “homeless” and yes-the ‘r’ was applied as a kid struggling in school. Been clean & sober for a long, long time now (thank God) but the words stick around. I like recovering…but alot of people seem not to like that one either.I have an adult child who has been called ‘r’ word, ‘weird’ and was shunned while matriculating in school. Been there & have a closet full of sweat shirts.
    So, I struggle with this. I can choose to be a harpy and/or an educator in public. But I am not going to tolerate it within my personal world. I don’t invite jerks & asses into my personal space…I pick my friends with care & there is a two strike limit: I tell you once-you don’t listen, you can’t be trusted, you’re out. I am quite hard because my personal space is where I do not need to crusade but to work live, rest and heal. I am on the firing line for others as well-it’s the work I do, so I am pretty damn quick at identifying the context & intent. My job is to address those things and I am not known for being wishy washy…If I offended you, I apologize.
    I have lived in a world addicted to the fantasy of normal for over sixty years. I have great compassion for people but low tolerance for ignorance and zero tolerance for bullies whether they have a doctorate or are just Joe/Jane schmuck on the street.
    I pick my battles and my degree of exposure….and I am hardened because I’ve been there and carried the rocks.

  3. I was gonna defend the R word again, but Grayson’s post holds the trump.

    “Oh, the material I could give you on parenting a dead kid.” Can’t touch that.

    God Bless You, Nancy Grayson. Hugs to you and Joel and Amy and family.

  4. Amy, sorry I know this is an oh so serious topic but you just made me laugh so much. I so appreciate this dilemma and the crazy veering back and forth from one pole to the other. It IS just a word and words are tools aren’t they? Symbols that have applied meaning to a linguist. So, that means that until the word Retarded (with a Capitol R) is redefined as meaning ” just the way everyone should strive to be” then it associates to our kids in a negative way. Perhaps what we bloggers are doing is just that eh? Redefining the term?
    Love and hugs

  5. Amy, I thought I would share this area of focus in the weekly school newsletter from Luma’s school. I enjoyed your post on the “r” word and have thought a lot about your thinking especially as it is a word that has been bumping around in our family’s vocabulary and discussed regularly as something that is to be avoided. Being around preteens lately quite a bit I am also surprised at how young boys/men use the word “gay” also. I restrain myself from having a conversation since I am never quite sure how far to go with other people’s children. Anyways, here is what was in the newsletter this morning….***

    The R Word
    Students and staff, you have the power to help eliminate the demeaning use of the R-word, or “retard” –a common taunt used to make fun of others. When you use the R-word with your friends because they are clumsy, or make a mistake, what you are doing, whether you know it or not, is enabling a hurtful stereotype of people with intellectual disabilities. It’s time to stop. This Thursday, during your lunch period, you can take the pledge to stop using the R-word and begin promoting respect.

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