r-word

Day 38 – When Friends Drop the R Bomb

On August 28th, my wife lost her job. 24 hours later, I lost mine. This blog is a continuation of the day-by-day chronicling of our emotional journey back to employment. This is bound to be upsetting, hilarious and hopeful.

Sunday – October 5, 2014

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned before that one of our coping mechanisms is to have friends over to play board games. In case you didn’t know, this is a very Mormon thing to do. We don’t drink, but we like to talk and have fun, so board games provide one ideal engagement.

“But, but, but…” I’ve heard some say. “BEER!” But the truth is if I’m missing anything by not drinking, I don’t know it. I do know Erin isn’t missing anything. She has often been accused of reaching a state of drunkenness, though she’s never had so much as one alcoholic beverage. She just knows how to have fun. Though I will say putting a little (non-alcoholic, of course) apple cider in her doesn’t hurt. I think all Mormons are probably terrible drunks, and this is why we abstain. You’re welcome, world.

Tonight’s game mates were Cody and Kristen. They always make us laugh and tonight was no exception. Worry just disappears when they’re around, as it did for a couple hours tonight.

I take that back. There was one down moment when Kristen let slip the “R” Word for the second time in our house. In order to address Cody’s condescension at her learning of a new game she said:

“I’m not retarded.”

For a brief moment you could not have heard a pin drop because the silence was just that deafening. It’s always an awkward moment when the R Bomb drops like that. My immediate instinct is to say nothing because that’s just going to make it MORE uncomfortable. But, as the parent of a child with special needs, that’s not really an option. I HAVE to say something. That word and what it’s come to mean is simply not okay, especially in our house.

Thankfully, Kristen made it so I didn’t have to say a word. Her cheeks flared up with red hot embarrassment as she closed her eyes, reared her head back, and said, “I can’t believe I did it again.” The tension of the moment quickly ran out, and we all started laughing. I admitted Erin and I had used that word lazily once upon a time, too, and that we understood. Kristen was deeply apologetic. I think we could have asked for a kidney and she would have given it to us. She knows better, she just slipped.

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We’ve found that’s true with most people: they do better when they know better–but everyone is human. It’s an ugly word made even uglier at times by peoples’ defense of it. “But I wasn’t talking about your daughter,” is one I’ve heard a lot. No, but you equated something awful with people like her. That’s not okay because she is the opposite of awful. (I’ve written about the R-Word before, explaining in more detail why the word is so awful and why I support its eradication.)

None of this put a damper on the night at all and we moved on quickly. At this point, we can’t help but be completely, inadequately grateful for the friends that surround us. We’ve always had friends, but it seems like we’re in a new golden age of friendships where we have people looking out for us constantly and with whom we know we can instantly have a good time. It hasn’t always been this way, and I like to think that having it now is one more way God is looking out for and blessing us at this kind of terrible time. He, after all, knew what was coming.

* * *

I demonstrated gross incompetence today by burning oatmeal. Pro tip: do not put instant oatmeal in the microwave without water. The oatmeal will burn, the plastic bowl it’s sitting in will melt, and copious amounts of smoke will emanate from the microwave before the full minute is even over. Also, you should learn to love the smell of burnt plastic because that will be what your entire house smells like for the forseeable future. Maybe eternity.

* * *

General Conference continued today, and one of the themes that stuck out to me was the necessity of focusing on the most needful and important things, particularly when it comes to social media. This is a topic I have a vested interest in as, quite obviously, I spend a good portion of my day plugged in and interacting with you good people. Sometimes, admittedly, to the detriment of my family. It’s something I’m working on. The point was made that good things can become insidious when they take our attention away from better things. Good things, basically, can become bad. How very true that is.

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Spreading the Word

IMG_0735Elora was upset. A teacher at school had used the R-Word in the classroom as a way to correct the kids who were doing an activity incorrectly.

“No, not like that! You’re not supposed to do it all retarded. Don’t act like a bunch of retards.”

Elora’s little sister, Cami, has special needs. Elora is particularly sensitive to the R-Word because of that, but hearing it come from the mouth of a teacher shook her up pretty bad. She told Erin and me that she hears the word on the playground all time. It bothers her, but they’re kids and kids aren’t known for the senstivity. But a teacher? How does that happen?

Here’s thing about the R-Word: getting mad about it doesn’t do any good. Most people who use it don’t understand the damage the word causes, so gently informing is always the better response. We didn’t want to call up the school and demand action be taken against the teacher or yell at the Principal. That wouldn’t do anything to actually fix the problem. And there was a problem. A big, school-wide one.

We wrote an email to the Principal instead, expressing our distress, but also our interest in doing whatever we could to help raise awareness at the school. In an impressive display of leadership, Principal Yang didn’t just send back apologies, but asked to meet with Erin to talk about what Miramonte Elementary could do to help their students and teachers be a bit more sensitive towards those with disabilities.

A few months later, on March 18, 3013 (Cami’s birthday, coincidentally), Miramonte held a Spread the Word to End the Word assembly. It was incredible. Many students came up to read their pledges and some high schoolers led everyone in a chant to SPREAD THE WORD/END THE WORD.

I regret I didn’t record the whole thing, but here’s the featured speakers, Elora and Erin, talking about Cami and what’s so bad using about the R-Word–even when you’re not referring to a person directly.

I think they did an incredible job. Many of Elora’s classmates came up to her afterwards and pledged to stop using the R-Word now that they knew better. If you’d like to take the pledge, please check out the End the Word site right here.

The R-Word

Language is an ever-evolving form of communication. Over time, word meanings can shift and what once was clinical can become derogatory and damaging. This has happened with the R-word.

For those who don’t know: The R-word is “Retard” or “Retarded.”

My daughter Cami has special needs. She has both physical and mental handicaps. She is also beautiful and sweet and perfect. Like so many children and adults like her, her life is hard enough without having to endure name-calling. But, the use of the R-word goes beyond that, doesn’t it? It’s not just a name. We hear the R-word used in casual speech all the time.

“That’s retarded.”

I’ve heard it said so many times in reference to anything from a bad movie to an ugly shirt. The meaning is understood: anything described as “retarded” is bad. But “retarded” is so much more than that. It is also a clinical descriptor of mentally handicapped people (though it is quickly going out of fashion even in those circles) and a derogatory term for people like my daughter.

I’m reminded of the TV show Community. One character on the show, Britta, is known as “the worst.” She perpetually screws things up to the point that, now, when anyone on the show does something wrong or incorrectly, they’ve “Britta’ed” it. Britta, understandably, is offended and hurt by this. Since the show is a comedy, we laugh. In the context of the show, “Britta’ed” is an inside joke among friends.

But the R-word is not an inside joke. It’s a real word that means something real whose meaning has been twisted into something almost entirely negative. When you use the R-word to describe something you disdain–even if you’re not referring to a person–it still hurts. You are “Britta’ing” the English language and bringing down an entire, amazing class of people to make your point.

Words aren’t just words. They come loaded with meaning, and that meaning can change over time.

Right now, there’s a way for you to take a stand against the R-word. I encourage you to go to this site to help “spread the word to end the word” by taking a simple pledge.

I took the pledge for my daughter Cami and for all the people with mental handicaps just like her. Is sacrificing one word in our vocabulary too much to ask to promote love and thoughtfulness? I hope not.

What do you think? Did you take a pledge? If so, please let me know in the comments!