Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Word That I Hate

The other day I was at a PAC meeting at Jake's school, and on my way down the hall I noticed something. A sign. It stood out among all the other flyers and notices, but it's message was pretty clear.

"Homophobia free zone." It declared in big black letters. A red circle with a line through it covered the words, "That's so gay."

Kids in our area throw the statements "that's so gay" or "you're so gay" around all the time. They really are meaning "stupid", but instead of saying "stupid", the say "gay." Which, I totally agree, is inappropriate. I wholeheartedly support the staff and other parents telling the children that it is inappropriate and just downright not nice. Of course, until the kids found a new word. Retard. Not just the kids, but the parents use this word, and nobody seems to be noticing. Parents, adults, other bloggers that I respect and admire, let this word roll off their tongue. I have bit mine in response, not wanting to cause waves.

I'm not biting my tongue any longer. Let me tell you why the word retard makes me so angry.

About 6 years ago I met Emily, a 6 year old first grader that I'd be working with. Emily had a love for pink, hopscotch, and smarties. She adored going fast, funny songs, ATV riding with her Mom, and babies. Emily wasn't like any other 6 year old though...she was severely physically handicapped. Her medical needs were so great that she could not attend school without trained personnel with her at all times, or she could die. She communicated not with her voice, but with her eyes and facial expressions. There was no running and snack time for this child, because she was tube fed and in a wheelchair. She could not walk, had difficulty controlling her head, and moving her arms was do-able but hard work.

Back in the old days, one would have used the label "retarded" to describe Emily, to mean slow or behind developmentally.

The first week of school a boy (we'll call him Robbie) was placed at Emily's table. The parents later told the teacher they "didn't want their child sitting next to the vegetable." In their minds, she was reduced to an inanimate object. A carrot. This smiling, angelic child whose greatest wishes were to have friends that would pay attention to her, who desperately wanted to be included and to enjoy the small bits of childhood that she could do, was retarded to these people.

They didn't see her cry the day her friends wheeled her out to the playground to play, and then promptly ran away and left her there facing a fence.

They didn't see her struggle valiantly every day to even hold a felt pen and refuse to give up.

They didn't see her eyes so full of pain from medical issues, and yet her smile was always present.

I did. I saw it every day. I saw this beautiful soul who wanted so badly to be loved and accepted despite her limitations claw her way tooth and nail every day to grasp just a tiny piece of what the other kids had.

To give her a little opportunity socially, I decided to take classroom children with us to play in the sandbox in the therapy room a few times a week. The idea was to teach the other kids that while Emily couldn't do many of the things that they took for granted, with a little time and patience they could still play with and include her. Robbie was the first child I chose. At first, he was terrified. He refused to talk to or even look at Emily, and would only sit in the far corner and dig by himself. I took Emily's hand and we began to play, with me stopping to ask what she wanted to build, and then taking her hands and physically helping her dig. She'd laugh, I'd sing and crack jokes. Emily would look at Robbie and back at me, as if to say, "what's up with him?". Robbie watched out of the corner of his eye with interest. Over the course of the next few days, Robbie edged closer. He began asking Emily questions. He would bring her things to show her, and she began smiling at him.

One week later, I walked into the room from my lunch break and there they were-curled up in a bean bag chair in the sun. Emily's blonde head rested on Robbie's strong shoulder as he read a picture book to her. Her eyes shined at the attention as she hung onto every word he said. He cracked a joke and began to giggle, and before long, they dissolved into shrieks of laughter.

And I cried.

Every time I hear the word "retard", I think of every child like Emily that struggles just to get through the day. I think of every parent who has had to give up their own dreams of having typical children. Of how for them, the children growing doesn't make things easier but instead more difficult. The fears of possibly losing their child hang overhead like a dark cloud, spuring some on to live rich, exciting lives when their kids are young because as they grow their conditions may cause complications that ultimately take their lives.

What if Emily was your child? How would you feel if someone flippantly tossed around the word retard? Could you really look Emily in the eye and make light of the struggles she faces on a daily basis? Would you allow your children to? One would never call a mute person dumb, someone in a wheelchair a cripple, or an African American person the n-word. So why is retard still tossed around? Don't we owe it to the Emilys of the world to acknowledge that they aren't stupid, they just have different needs?

Many gay people can defend themselves. However, it's pretty sad when a society chooses to put down those among us who often literally don't even have a voice or sometimes the language to voice their opposition. However, my dear readers, YOU do.

Go ahead, use it. I dare you. Emily would be proud.

"Stupid is as stupid does, Sir"~ Forrest Gump

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