Our bodies have a way of telling us when to speak up. Our hearts begin to pound, our stomachs sink. Hands become clammy and eyes suddenly dart elsewhere.
Staying silent might seem like the easier choice. Are their words really hurting anyone? And yet, our bodies tell us the answer is yes. Our moral compass agrees. We know we must say something, even if we're not sure how best to say it.
A couple of months ago, a friend was filling me in on recent hijinks and concluded the tale with these words: "I'm so retarded."
And there it was: heart hammering away, face red, air sucked out of the room, the internal debate of whether to say anything at all.
But then, it's not much of a debate. I cannot let it slip by undetected. Because when I hear that word, for a split second, I'll wonder if Aunt Teresa heard it. Never mind that the fifth anniversary of her death is today. Never mind that she spent her time with family in a rural town in Illinois, generally far from wherever my conversations occur.
I took a deep breath and told my friend why that word bothered me. I explained about Aunt Teresa. They apologized and said they normally don't say it, that this was the reminder they needed. And then we carried on with our conversation.
Mentally retarded, developmentally disabled, intellectually disabled. However you want to describe Aunt Teresa, the easiest way to put it is that she had the mind of an 8 or 9 year old. But this in no way defined the whole of her person or what she meant to our family.
It's been 5 years since I sat by her side, longer still since she greeted me at the door. Even so, I can hear her chuckle and the way she said my name. She was always happy to see her great-niece, along with the rest of our family. In fact, she was cheerful most of the time. Hair bows, kittens, brides, birthday cakes- these are just a few of the things that made Aunt Teresa happy.
But some things made her sad.
You'd better believe she knew the hurtful current "retarded" carries. The thing is, people didn't say to Teresa, "you're retarded." Though she couldn't fully understand, she knew enough to know a label applied to her cognitively was being used as an insult.
We said that word on the playground and maybe it stung. Then again, we knew we weren't in fact cognitively delayed. I remember my mom pulling me aside one day and asking me what "retarded" meant. I remember not knowing what to say. Mom asked me to think about Aunt Teresa. The lightbulb went on and I saw the connection between words and their varied meanings and just how they can be wielded. I pictured Aunt Teresa looking sad because of that word and I determined then and there not to use it.
Sure, I slipped up over the years. It shocked me to hear the word pass my lips and I'd apologize as soon as I realized it. The R-word is such a part of American vernacular that it's easy not to think twice. It's just a word, after all. Except that it's not. It is derogatory. It's used to imply our superiority at someone's expense and that is hateful. We can do so much better.
We all use slang and yet I'm learning to think through why we say what we say. At what point did someone use "retarded," intending to go for the Ultimate Put Down? Or dumb, gay, or whatever else kids are saying these days. Innocent words aimed with malintent.
We may not mean to hurt others with our vocabulary but it happens just the same. People deserve respect, no matter what. Surely you can use another word to express your frustration with yourself or someone else.
Today I honor Aunt Teresa's memory by asking that you stop using the R-word. Take the pledge to end the R-Word and learn more about why it's important. Not sure what to say to a family or friend using the word? Here's a suggested script. Read this article to learn about other words we should quit saying.
Choose your words wisely, my friends. You never know who is listening or how a simple word choice will affect them.