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The ‘R’ Word

  • Posted on September 22, 2011 at 5:37 AM

My step-son is living with us now. The dust from his arrival is settling, but I’m not going to get into the details of all that.

In the past, my stepson would stay with us for a weekend, or for longer during vacations from school. He was always presented with a few rules that he didn’t have to face over at his mom’s house. One of those rules was not to use the ‘R’ word. For a short duration, he could usually follow the rules with a few reminders, but it didn’t impact much of his life outside our circle of influence. Now that he’s living with us, the “big” rules, like curfews and school work, are getting easier for him to follow, while the “little” rules, like word and entertainment choices, are getting harder.

On the one hand, it’s very, very important that he feels at home here. On the other, there are some things I just cannot be okay with. The ‘R’ word is one of the latter. In my stepson’s world, it’s just something kids say, a means of expression. It’s like “tubular” or “rad,” if we want to go all the way back to the 80s. In reality, it is a label that refers to real people and uses the label as a negative. Despite my efforts to put the usage in context, he didn’t get it. Sure, he’d get it for a moment, but the moment would pass. My message never really sank in.

We were recently watching videos on YouTube, finding ways to connect. One used the “R” word in the title and showed a horse with two legs running. He laughed. I didn’t. He didn’t understand why I didn’t laugh. So, I had them do a search for “the ‘R’ word campaign.” They chose to watch the video done by Glee. The laughter stopped. Perhaps it was just another moment. I hope not.

Part of it is just general compassion. There are real people who experience real hurt when they hear the word misused. Sure, fine, good. That would be enough.

But there’s more to it than that. When you misuse the “R” word, or any other disability-related word, you are perpetuating a system of beliefs that is detrimental, and potentially deadly, to my three younger children. My stepson doesn’t get that. In part, that’s a good thing. He can’t imagine a world where people in authority would dismiss his little brothers so thoroughly that their very lives, let alone their liberties, would be in jeopardy. Unfortunately, whether he can imagine it or not, that is the world we live in. From current efforts to dehumanize autistics to our history of eugenics, my children are in danger. We live in a world where it’s not safe to be autistic, it’s not safe to be retarded, it’s not safe to be disabled. Using the “R” word perpetuates that, it’s one of the little things people do that says it’s okay for it not to be safe for people with disabilities. And I’m not okay with that. I will never be okay with that. He doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing, and he’s still young enough for all of this to seem less than real for him. But all too soon ignorance will no longer be possible for him, and it’s my job—at least, in part—to make sure he’s ready.