The word retarded has made the news lately. The Special Olympics designated March 3rd as a day of awareness about the hurtful and inappropriate ways that word is used. Before that, Sarah Palin excoriated Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's Chief of Staff, after he used the word to describe some of his fellow Democrats. Palin went on to defend Rush Limbaugh in his use of the word to also describe the Democrats, something that caused another round of blogposts and op-eds.
It's great to draw attention to a hurtful word. But the problems within our culture go far deeper than the use of the word retarded as a slur. When it comes to talking about disability in general, even those of us who want to be sensitive, just, and kind often don't know what to say or how to say it.
I write as the mother of a child with Down syndrome, yet I'll be the first to admit that I also struggle with language here. Do I call it "disability"? "Special needs"? "Developmental delays"?
The most telling example of my own loss for words came a few months ago. My daughter Penny and I went to a birthday party, and I met another mom. She said, "I have a child with special needs, too." She pointed out the window. "My daughter is ten. She's the one with the walker."
Over the course of the afternoon, I found myself watching this woman's daughter, whom I'll call Abigail. Abigail fed herself pizza. Abigail's body looked like spaghetti. She could crawl and walk with the walker, but she couldn't navigate the stairs. I didn't hear her speak more than one syllable, and the meaning of her utterances was often unclear to me. Abigail was thin and tall and beautiful, with smooth skin and kind eyes and a gorgeous smile.
And I didn't know what to say. I wanted to get to know Abigail ...1
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