Today's post is from Maggie Kast, whose story "Joyful Noise," appears in the anthology Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, edited by Suzanne Kamata. Kast is also the author of and The Crack between the Worlds: a Dancer's Memoir of Loss, Faith and Family (Wipf and Stock, 2009). Her essay, "No Pity," appears in the anthology Gravity Pulls You In: Perspectives on Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum, edited by Kyra Anderson and Vicki Forman (Woodbine House, 2010).
Rahm Emanuel's recent use of the "r" word to castigate conservative Democrats has created a flurry of comment about the word, both as slang for incompetent and as derogatory term for people with developmental disabilities. Sarah Palin demanded he be fired, and Rush Limbaugh called Rahm's meeting with advocates for the mentally handicapped a "retard summit at the White House." Questioned about Rush's rant, Palin called his use of the word, "crude and demeaning," although she later excused it as "satire."
This current publicity merely highlights a longstanding problem and efforts to solve it. In March, 2009, the Special Olympics held a youth summit, and this group of young people conceived and launched a campaign to "Spread the Word to End the Word," designed to eliminate "retard" both as epithet and descriptor. Several governors have endorsed this campaign and forty-eight states have replaced "mental retardation" with "developmental disability" or a related term in their laws and departmental designations. A bill known as "Rosa's law," currently before Congress, would change the term "mentally retarded" to "intellectual disability" in several federal statutes.
As the parent of a child who failed to sit up, walk or talk when expected, I faced the question of what to call his condition. Never fond of euphemisms, I still dreaded the harsh sound and still harsher meaning of the "r" word and yearned to call my son anything else. At the same time, I wanted to say the word before it was said to me. More than anything, I hoped my son would never hear it, would never know this cruel fact about himself. One night in the '70s, as I listened to reports of Nixon's wrongdoing on the radio, my son propped on his hands on the kitchen floor, and repeated to myself: "retarded, retarded," coming down lightly on the "r's" and the "e" and clipping the "t" and the "d's," trying to improve the sound of the word and get myself used to it. Accepting the term was part of my facing difficult facts, and my regret was matched by