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Words Matter: A Royal Oak Mom Takes on the R-Word

A special needs mom talks about the hurtful nature of the word 'retard.'

A Royal Oak mom, who I had never met and is a member of a large Irish family from the greater crowd, sent me a message that she wanted to talk to me about a possible column. This is her story.

"My husband went up to our neighborhood party store this past Saturday afternoon with our 11-year-old son Patrick to pick up some last minute things for a family party we were having later in the day. Patrick is autistic. While in the store there was an accidental contact with a young man in his early twenties. Our son has a hard time with physical space and the young man interpreted his response as hostile and a chest bump was his retort.  My husband said something like, 'hold on there, that's not cool.'"

The young man's said, "It ain't my fault you can't keep your retard kid under control."

"It ain't my fault you can't keep your retard kid under control." 

If you have children or a niece or nephew or a brother or sister - but especially if you have children - words like those become nuclear weapons. You don't hear much after that, you immediately turn into Papa Bear or Mama Bear and protect your child from the attacking wolf. If you have a child with special needs, I'm guessing that the transformation is more like turning into the angry Wolverine of X-Men fame.

Patrick’s dad asked for some help from the party store staff, a man who knew him, but no assistance came. In the end, the young thug, and that's what he is, bought his beer and headed out the door with his fake puffery intact.

The father shared the incident with his wife, but the family party was beginning and it wasn't until they went to bed that night, both sleepless from anger and angst, that a simmering fire of emotions exploded. When the infuriation waned, they agreed that castration and/or a lobotomy were not really options for the insensitive culprit. What set in was the rising ache in the pit of their parental guts that that this was not going to be the last time their family was going have to deal with the iniquity of bullies.

Words hurt

That is where my conversation headed with Patrick’s mom. How do you deal with it? And, we're not just talking about the truly bad guys that are out there in life who throw grenades at those among us facing life's greatest challenges, but it's the casual dart thrower, too.

"I can't tell you how many times I hear the term retard thrown around casually. Yes, as the parent of a special needs child, I'm sensitized to the hurtfulness of language, but I wish people would think maybe just a little bit about the impact of their words. Nobody is perfect, and yes, as a kid, I called my brother a retard for hiding my dolls, but as we mature, can't we all grow up and take a look at the hurt we can cause?" 

The wisdom of a mother is worthy of attention. The empathy of a mom with a special needs child can reach out and touch souls.

This mom’s words also struck home. It couldn't have been more than a week ago that I was taken to task by the lovely Kathy about using the word retard. I insisted that I was only using it descriptively and not to harm anybody. Her answer was more colorful than "that's nonsense, the word can hurt!"

Words matter

Our daughter Moira, a high school teacher and young mom, offered her insight into the power of words.

“Words matter. All too often we don’t think about what words we use and what they mean," Moira said. "Communication is more than just what you think you said. It is also about how a person perceives the words we use.  While one person may believe that a word like 'retarded' is an everyday word, it can be like a knife to others.  Being careful is part of the art of communication.”

Moms should rule the world. And special needs children and their loving families are the best guides to a world of patience and kindness.

Teresa Bryant August 27, 2012 at 01:00 PM
Well said. A very good reminder, in what appears to me so many days, a strong lack of filters when we open our mouths.
Allison Adams August 27, 2012 at 04:08 PM
We need to tell our children at the youngest age that "retard" and "that's so gay" are offensive and inappropriate words.
Ann August 27, 2012 at 08:16 PM
Thank you for taking the time to write the article- and this should also address local business owners and just what kind of behavior will they tolerate and not tolerate in their stores- Is it OK to let people (old and young)be bullied in their establishments. What is important -the sale -or the safety and integrity of your customers?
Cheryl Loukinen August 27, 2012 at 10:05 PM
First of all, so sorry your family had endure such a heartache. It is hard being a parent and to hear words of hate towards your child who may or may not understand what is said. I worked in a group home and out of all of them my favorite was autistic. He was so giving of himself, but there is the personal space issue, but don't we all have it too. We need to educate ourselves and our children that we need to respect everyones feelings, Yes, it can be hard at times, but we all have to try and keep some tolerence. From one Momma Bear to another, thank you for the story
al carter August 27, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Very good story on a wonderful family! We have taken the 'R" word out of our vocabulary in our household and always politely correct people who feel it is ok to use. Way to go and you have our support!!!
educatorparent August 28, 2012 at 01:37 AM
Great article. To stand by and say or do little or nothing is to condone the behavior.
Mr. Creasoat August 28, 2012 at 03:25 PM
The clown in question committed a crime, assault and battery by chest bumping this mans son. How on earth is the verbal abuse the focus of this incident?
Anonymous August 29, 2012 at 01:40 AM
Having a sister with special needs, and being a special education teacher myself, this issue is near and dear to me as well. I'm so sorry that your family had to experience that matter this past week. As an advocate, I think it's also important to let the the public know, that the proper terms would be, "a child with autism," or "a student with autism." We always want to put the child first versus saying "the autistic."

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