Friday, March 21, 2014

The Meaning of a Word

Today is World Down Syndrome Day.  There's a lot of stuff going around social media about the R word.  I have a long history with the R word.  I'm changing that history.

I admit it.  Calling someone retarded - even myself - made me laugh.  It was a word that held no meaning for me.  I didn't think about the history or the implications of using it.  I thought it was funny. Now I realized that it does indeed have implications and a lot of meaning.  Lesson learned.

I was guilty of this for years.  My ex and I even had a code word we used that meant "you're retarded" without actually saying that word, but the sentiment was the same.  We knew it was wrong to use, hence the slight change there.  We didn't want our girls learning it.  But we didn't really stop using it.

Then after our separation, he started dating a woman who has a daughter with Down Syndrome.  That girl will probably never understand how much she has changed our family - for the better.  I remember the first time I met her.  She wanted to meet me - I couldn't figure out why.  She adores my girls and wanted to meet their mom.  Makes sense.  Sammie is a sweet and fun kid - and I would never do anything to hurt her feelings.  So my vocabulary changed.

But really it's more than that.  It's changing how you look at people.  I would never use a racial slur so why would I use a word that is so mean and would hurt other people's feelings?  I wouldn't make fun of other disabilities so why is using that word okay?  My girls do a lot of  Down Syndrome (DS) activities with Sammie - the Buddy Walk, dances, all sorts of things.  They are part of that world.

My proud DS moment came last year when a teacher in one of my daughter's classes called a kid retarded in class.  A stood up and yelled "It's not okay to use that word!" Other kids joined in and corrected him.   I showed up a few days later to have a little chat with him about his vocabulary choices.  He apologized and I'm pretty sure he won't use that word again in class.  I hope he thinks about it before using it out of class.

It takes a while for words to enter or leave popular culture.  Hopefully this word will be gone for good.  Hopefully people will realize people with Down Syndrome are PEOPLE. It's an important thought.  They are people with senses of humor, feelings and a lot to contribute.  For me, Sammie has taught me a lesson I won't forget.

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