By Carin Griffith
Spread the Word to End the Word is an ongoing effort by Special Olympics and other supporters to raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word “retard(ed)” and encourage people to pledge to stop using the R-word. (Every year in March, a day is devoted to this effort.)
From time to time, something pops up in the media about someone well-known saying the word. If I weren’t on Facebook, I probably wouldn’t even hear about these stories, as I’m not really a news-follower. But, they come up in my Facebook news feed when a Down syndrome organization I follow speaks out, or a fellow parent of a child with Down syndrome comments. I never investigate the story, as in my mind, it always seems to come down to poor judgment and ignorance about how hurtful the word is to so many.
I was actually much more offended, hurt, and even angered by people’s use of the R-word when we first had Rylee than I am now. I know. It sounds weird. You’d think as a mom of a child with Down syndrome that I’d be picketing in front of courthouses to actually make using the R-word illegal. But I’m not.
Let me explain.
Do I think that people use the R-word in derogatory ways without thinking — that more often than not, it’s used out of ignorance and not out of trying to be hurtful?
Do I think it’s okay simply because they don’t realize how they are using the word?
Of course not. (I also think people use the word “gay” in the same derogatory way and that should stop, too.)
Do I want Rylee to face a society that will make jokes at her expense?
Does my heart break at the thought of having her feelings hurt?
Will I do what I can to educate those around us that words hurt? Will I be sure our kids understand the power of our words?
Do I want to teach our kids that other people’s opinions of them matter?
Do I want to teach Rylee that Down syndrome defines her? That what a political commentator says, what a TV show script reads, or what a stranger on the street utters defines her?
Do I want to teach our kids that the way to respond to ignorance is anger?
Do I want our kids to surround themselves with people who love them, value them, and respect them?
Do I want them to have the skills and self-confidence to handle themselves diplomatically when they, inevitably, come across someone who says something unkind about them?
Just like everything in life, it’s a balance.
So, after I politely correct a person I hear use the R-word flippantly without any thought as to what they’re really saying…
I will turn to Rylee and say, “But it doesn’t really matter what they say, does it?”
Carin Griffith is a former teacher turned stay-at-home mom and advocate for her daughter and others with different abilities. She serves on the New Directions Down Syndrome Association board as Medical Outreach Coordinator. Her daughter, Rylee, now 10 years old, has been visiting Children’s Care Rehabilitation Center since she was 2 ½ years old for speech therapy services. Rylee attends 4th grade at Fred Assam Elementary in Brandon, where she loves her teachers and classmates, jumping rope, and sleepovers with friends. Carin, her husband Jeremy, and their 4 children live in Sioux Falls.