By Joslyn Gray, REDBOOK
When I was growing up, the word "retard" was thrown around a lot. The most common use was "that's retarded," meaning something was stupid. "That's totally retarded" probably came out of my mouth on a daily basis in the 1980s. I would have also said something was "wicked retarded," since it was, after all, New England.
I have a cousin with Down Syndrome, and her siblings used the word "retarded" as slang, too. We would never have called my cousin "a retard," though. But we saw nothing wrong with describing something as retarded. It was slang, just like when we said "that's so gay" to mean something was weird. Excuse me while I smack myself upside the head for being such a jackass.
Because as time marches on, we learn. We know more. We understand more. We are better. Words that were once the social norm become unacceptable. Racial epithets that I grew up hearing my grandparents say are now more shocking than the f-bomb. And yet the word "retard" is still used all the damn time.
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New Orleans mom Amy Mueller wrote, in a heartbreaking blog post , of her daughter Emily being called a retard by a drunken Mardi Gras reveler in what should have been a family-friendly zone for parade-watching. Eleven-year-old Emily has autism, and has a patch on her coat that would indicate to medical personnel that she has autism, should an emergency arise.
Ms. Mueller asked an inebriated college student to move because he was spilling beer on her daughter, had swung his lit cigarette near her hair, and was blocking their view. The young man wasn't so drunk that he couldn't read the patch on Emily's coat.
"Hey, man! I need to move. This woman is bitching at me because her retard daughter can't see the parade!" he shouted to a kid a few feet away. He turned back to us, looked my daughter in the eye, and shouted to no one in particular. "This retard is making watching the parade a challenge."
My daughter looked at me, knowing he was talking about her, and tears formed in her eyes.
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The worst part of the story, for me, is that Amy's daughter had previously enjoyed Mardi Gras because it was the one time of the year she felt she fit in.
A year ago, I asked my daughter what she most loved about Mardi Gras, expecting her to say the throws, the beads, and the pretty costumes. Her answer surprised me: "I don't feel like I am different than everyone else during Mardi Gras, Mama. During Mardi Gras, everyone is a little weird like me."
Ms. Mueller wrote that her daughter was so intensely hurt; that she never wanted anything to do with Mardi Gras again-despite the fact that watching the parade was an annual tradition for her family. But showing that words can also be powerfully good, Ms. Mueller's blog post went viral, and people in her community immediately offered to make Mardi Gras happy for Emily again. Readers offered to mail Emily their own parade souvenirs. Members of the all-female Krewe of Muses, Emily's favorite parade group, left comments on the blog post saying they'd like to help.
Ultimately, the Krewe of Muses welcomed Emily to their den for "Emily Gras," a massive special performance, complete with dances, gifts, and plenty of love.
I hope that these acts of generosity and kindness help ease Emily's pain, but what happened that evening can never be erased. Where did that young man learn to use words like that? Where did he learn that it's okay to be mean to little girls? (And also, what the hell is wrong with his friends? There has never been a time that I was so drunk I would have tolerated a friend being cruel like that.)
As parents, we have a responsibility to make sure we're teaching our kids the awesome power of the words we use. We cannot use phrases like "that's retarded" or "that's so gay" when what we mean is that something isn't good enough.
There are words from our childhoods that may echo around in our heads, but it doesn't mean we need to say them out loud. And if we slip, and realize we've said something unkind - something we don't want our children to say-we need to correct ourselves.
We know more now. We need to be better. We need to try really, really hard to raise people who will someday not crush a child's spirit, but lift it.
Joslyn Gray is the author of the humor blog stark. raving. mad. mommy. She writes about parenting four fabulous, hilarious kids with a quirky mix of autism, ADHD, and anxiety.
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