The R-Word

Dear Star-In-Her-Eye Readers,

Many of you might already know this, but I wrote an essay about the word “Retarded,” and the piece was accepted by the (wonderful, meticulous, generous, thoughtful) editors at The Sun. In this essay, called “The R-Word,” I wanted to say more than the obvious, which is of course “Please don’t use the word ‘Retarded.'” I wanted to investigate why the word has gone from “progressive” (in the 1950’s) to hurtful epithet today. I wanted to look at the etymology of the word “retarded.” I also wanted to to examine the rhetoric we use around people with intellectual disabilities. And I ultimately wanted to know, “Can language really change our thinking? Can any word or phrase we use to describe Fiona and people like her ever change the way people with intellectual disabilities are seen?” I was surprised by the answers.

The editors at The Sun have received a lot of feedback on this piece, so they decided to publish the entire essay on their website. I’m thrilled to say you can read the whole thing here! And below is a teaser, the first two paragraphs:

WHEN HE DIAGNOSED my three-month-old, Fiona, with a chromosomal disorder, the redheaded, cherubic medical geneticist did not use the phrase “mentally retarded” — thank God, or the gods of rhetoric, or just the politically correct medical school the young doctor had attended. (He was my age, thirties, about to start a family of his own.) This was in 2012, one year before the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders replaced “mental retardation” with “intellectual developmental disorder.” So he could officially have said “mental retardation.” Instead he said that most people with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome “have intellectual disabilities to some degree.” 

I nodded. The phrase did not crack the earth open and pull me under. Intellectual brought to mind a monocle. A New Yorker article. Attending a Gloria Steinem lecture. Disability can mean: an impairment that limits activity. This is what I immediately grasped about the wiggling seven-pound infant who was waking me up three times a night: that attending a Gloria Steinem lecture while wearing a monocle and holding this week’s New Yorker might pose a challenge for her. I could live with that.

Lastly, here’s a photo of Fiona, who I realize I haven’t written much about lately, but I will again soon. With her talker, she’s told me four times today that she wants a kitten.

[Image description: Fiona's face, her eyes cast down, her neck wrapped in a green-on-green patterned scarf, her pink lips ever so faintly smiling. Her blondish brown curls are in wild piles on he head. A blurred field of grass is behind her.]

[Image description: Fiona’s face, her eyes cast down, her neck wrapped in a green-on-green patterned scarf, her pink lips ever so faintly smiling. Her blondish brown curls are in wild piles on he head. A blurred field of grass is behind her.]

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7 thoughts on “The R-Word

  1. Congrats on getting a piece picked up! More people should read your wonderful writing.

    I was a personal assistant for a woman with multiple disabilities. As a child, she was labeled. Her mother taught her to walk, to read, to sign. She showed everyone.

    And get that darling girl a kitten!

  2. That article is truly the best I’ve ever read on the subject. You deserve an award for it as the writing is exquisite. So is that photo of Fiona. She is magical.

  3. What an exceptional piece of writing. You are a truly gifted writer. I love how you go against the so called empirical grain and prove your point with other sources and your own experience. May I share this on FB and my blog?

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