Peter was talking with a friend of ours. I don't know the context, but she called something "retarded" as they talked.
We bumped into her again the next day. She reached out and touched Peter's arm. "I'm so sorry about what I said yesterday. I don't know if you even noticed, but I was sleep deprived, and a word I never use came out of my mouth, and I'm so sorry."
He looked her in the eye. "Thanks so much for saying that. It means a lot."
Pretty simple exchange, and yet it was utterly remarkable. Since Penny was born, as I've written about before (see Finding the Right Words, Our Daughter Penny and the Word Retarded, Movies and the R-Word, They Cheered For Me, among others), we've become even more conscious of the way people–intentionally, unintentionally–demean those with cognitive disabilities through their language. It runs from the top to the bottom of our culture, whether it's President Obama joking about the Special Olympics, or the countless times we've overheard everyone from teenagers to grandmothers saying, "I'm so retarded," or "That's so retarded," in passing conversation. Or when I picked up the New York Times on Friday to see this front page article: Promise Seen in Drug for Retardation Syndrome. The article itself provides some helpful information. The language used to convey it leaves something to be desired.
The bottom line is that people in our culture still use the word retarded as a casual slur or joke or just a lazy way to describe themselves after making a mistake. And when the word is used in this way, it contributes to a perception that people with cognitive disabilities (a.k.a. mental retardation) can be treated with derision.
But it slips out. Even for the most well-meaning, thoughtful, caring and compassionate people, it slips out. So three words of advice when it does. Say you're sorry. That's it. Just say you're sorry. Brave the awkward distance. It goes a long way.