By Laura Rosen Cohen
I have a child with a genetic disorder who is mentally retarded.
That means that he has cognitive delays and is unlike regular children. He has a difference in his genetic make-up that affects his physical and intellectual abilities.
In the past, individuals with mental disabilities have been called mongoloids, morons, cretins and imbeciles. More recently, the term “mentally retarded” has been used. Now it is fashionable to say that people like my son have developmental disabilities or that they have global developmental delays. I’ve probably used these terms myself on various medical forms, school applications and whatnot.
I don’t, however, have a problem with the term “mentally retarded.”
I do cringe when “retard” is used as an insult, just as I would if I heard someone use “Jew” pejoratively, or as an adjective (“Jewing” someone down in price), or the unspeakable (which seems acceptable when some rap stars say it) “N” word to describe black people.
What I object to is the idea that someone’s reality, the way they were created (in my view, by G-d and in G-d’s image) is contemptible and an insult. I’m not talking about their opinions or politics – just the state in which they entered this earth: disabled, or blind, black, brown, Asian or whatever.
I object to all forms of censorship.
I believe it’s wrong to ban thoughts and words.
In a civilized society, undesirable speech and behaviour are self-policed.
Attempting to ban the word retarded won’t help children like my son.
It just means that people have to tip-toe even further around reality, and become ever more frightened of offending parents and relatives of those with disabilities. Aren’t there enough sensitivity minefields out there already?
That’s why I think the campaign against the R-word is misguided and troubling and bound to fail.
Because it skirts the truth.
The truth is that we parents of children with intellectual and physical disabilities are terrified that our children cause revulsion. We are afraid that people will abuse and disdain them, and that they will lead meaningless lives.
We are terrified that because our children are mentally slow or trapped in their bodies they won’t get the education they deserve to live up to their potential – whatever that may be.
We are afraid that other than us, who is going to care for them when we can’t? What if they languish, like vegetables? What if their siblings can’t handle it? What will happen to them when we die?
Will someone hurt my child? Trap them? Abuse them? My other kids can talk. My son can’t.
We die a little inside every time strangers stare at our children, or make fun of them.
We do wish that our beautiful and often helpless children were not burdened by their intellectual and physical handicaps. We sometimes, even often, wish we could make it all go away, but we can’t.
We have to live in a world that has progressed but still reviles disability for the most part.
We know that many people are disgusted by our kids and have no patience for them.
But we love them, live for them and would die for them.
Many parents, instead of talking about these dark fears, direct their efforts into campaigns against words, when what they are really worried about is that their kids are being treated as human garbage.
But nobody can be forced into loving our children, or treating them with dignity and compassion.
That kind of grace and charity can only be innate; it can only come from within. Isn't external enforcement of tolerance for any group an oxymoron, by definition?
Banning any particular descriptive will not change social attitudes. Tinkering with language will not affect a fundamental discomfort. An example is food. A food that someone dislikes can be named something else, but if the texture or smell or appearance makes someone uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter what it’s called.
People will still stare and feel pity and revulsion about the disabled no matter how we characterize their intellectual or physical states.
I’m not sure that it’s a wise use of energy to try to change attitudes. That is done through real experience – by hanging out with disabled people. But that is not everyone’s cup of tea.
I think our best hope for changing perceptions is to live our lives with our children and fearlessly incorporate them into society.
But their value needs to speak for itself.
We can’t force, campaign or “language-massage” anyone into loving and respecting our children the way we do.
We can have an honest conversation about our deepest fears for them. And maybe we can put our energy into productive programs to protect our kids, like an extended circle of watch.