My heart broke when I heard it. There I was, sitting there watching a Lunch ‘n Learn on my laptop, when it dropped like a bomb—the R-word.
When I heard it casually thrown about the second time, I started to get angry. You see, as the mother of a child with an intellectual disability, I’m a bit sensitive to the “R-word.” Retarded. That word. That judgmental, dismissive, last-century word. I expect to hear it uttered by the ignorant, I am disheartened, but not shocked, when I read it on Facebook, posted by a teenaged cousin who hasn’t been taught better, but I was floored to hear it uttered, and go uncorrected by anyone in a room full of my colleagues.
My fingers hesitated over the keyboard—should I say something? Should I tell them that Gov. Beshear signed HB 485 into law, which eradicated the use of the term “mental retardation” and “retarded” universally throughout the KRS, replacing it with the term “intellectual disability?” I decided no. If persons who I respect and admire as much as these presenters don’t realize the hurt this word causes, not only to the parents and friends of those with intellectual disabilities like me, but that it also hurts the hearts of their own clients, who would be sitting there in the courtroom while their advocate referred to them with that word. No, if the failure to appreciate the harm this word causes is lost on some of the most empathetic, accepting, non-judgmental people I could ever hope with which to surround myself, something more than an text during a Lunch ‘N Learn needs to be done.
My son, David, has autism and a speech disorder, but he also has a low IQ. He’s not unintelligent—when he could barely speak many words at all, he would point to every Home Depot sign we would pass and say, “Daddy store.” Yup, my husband spends a lot of time at Home Depot. David can remember a promise made in the morning that chocolate chip cookies will be secured at the store while he is at school and bound off the bus in the early evening, saying “Cookies?” I often can’t remember I need to buy aspirin from the car to the front door of Kroger.
David doesn’t learn as easily as I did, or as his brother does. My husband had trouble in school; he has dyslexia, but back in the late 1970s, he was just considered lazy and dumb by his teachers. He’s not at all unintelligent. He is one of the smartest people I know, but not in a book smart way. In a much more practical way—he has common sense. Think about your colleagues—how many don’t have the common sense nature gave a collie? See, there are all different kinds of smart.
Tom understands better than I what David needs to complete his homework. I work with the small, precocious one, my second son. He’s wicked book smart. He also is nefarious, a tad selfish and has designs on world domination. David, on the other hand, is the first person to comfort someone who is upset or injured. He is stymied by meanness, hasn’t a selfish bone in his body and is really interested in religion. My second son gets mad when I put money in the collection basket each Sunday because he thinks he would be a better use of the money. We all have issues.
As attorneys, we have a responsibility to keep abreast of the law. HB 485, signed in 2012, universally struck the “R-word” out of all of the Kentucky Revised Statutes. As those who have chosen to advocate for some of the most vulnerable in our society, we must care for our clients wholly. Taking care of their legal interests is a given, but we must also care for the person, and calling that person such a term, particularly in their presence, is simply unacceptable. As attorneys who seek to have the law applied in a way which best protects our clients’ interests, part of our role is to educate—judges, prosecutors, police officers. When you file a motion seeking to suppress evidence, you are instructing all parties on the law concerning search and seizure. When you file a motion seeking expert funds, you educate the bench and bar by not using the “R-word,” but by substituting the proper term, “intellectual disability.” Not only is this now the legally proper term, it is the humane, polite word to use. Even when used in its “proper” context, the R-word hurts. Especially for clients who do have an intellectual disability; they may not be able to discern the “technical” use of the term from all those taunts they heard on the playground in school. Just don’t use it, since it doesn’t exist in the law any more, anyway. Some of you, I can feel it now, are rolling your eyes at the “political correctness” of it all. I’ve never much understood why good taste is derided. I’ve never much understood why people sneer at the “political correctness” of saying “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person” (because the person comes first, not the disability. My son isn’t an “autistic child” but a child with autism.). I’ve never much has truck for people who are simply inconvenienced by having to change their language, when the reward on the other side is a person who no longer feels second-class, derided or shunned.