The R word (again)

Posted by Chantal | 10:54 p.m. | 3 comments »

I know, not book related.
This was posted on a parenting site that I am part of, and it explains what I was trying to get across in one of my earlier posts about not being able to read books that have the R word in them.

It's long, but really good. Be sure to read the last part, written by a highschool student.

Many of you might have recently heard about the concerns about the
new Ben Stiller movie, "Tropic Thunder." It is allegedly a satire
about self-concerned actors. In a sub-plot, Stiller's character
portrays an intellectually disabled character (poorly) and the "R-
word" is used repeatedly in this movie (nearly 20 times)
pejoratively. One of the movie's catch-phrases is "full retard" and
it was marketed on t-shirts promoting the movie. I find this humor
about as funny as elder abuse, child pornography, or genocide. The
only difference is that most people find elder abuse, child
pornography, or genocide abhorrent, while denigrating the
intellectually disabled is viewed with humor. And this movie is
released just in time for "Back to School." The hallways of school
were sometimes pretty scary for those of us without a disability, so
just imagine the hardships the disabled face.

There have been numerous protests of the movie around the country,
uniting no fewer than 12 national disability groups, including a
protest here in Austin, in which my family participated last night.
This is not about censorship or political-correctness. This is a
civil rights issue, and the right to be treated with dignity and
respect as a human being. And the disability community is glad to
have the opportunity for a public discourse about the R-word.

This is an issue that is far greater than a movie. The
word "retard" is on par with "nigger" for the African-American
community. I shudder at even typing the N-word, though many, no
doubt, have few reservations about using the "retard." The R-word,
when I was a child, was used only to refer people with actual
intellectual disabilities. Now, however, the R-word is endemic in
our society, much as the word "like" (As in, "I was, like, so mad,
and he was, like….") is casually used among youth.

Maybe people don't realize the pain they cause by using this word.
Maybe they don't realize that people with intellectual disabilities
are 4-10 times more likely to be a victim of crime. Perhaps they
didn't know that people with intellectual disabilities were among
the first victims of "eugenics" in Nazi Germany. Perhaps they don't
realize that "termination" rates are between 89%-94% for those
diagnosed, in utero, with Down syndrome. Often, many of these
families have no issue themselves with having a child with Down
syndrome, but cite the cruel treatment by society as a reason for
termination. And Down syndrome is not the only diagnosis here.
Think of cerebral palsy or a head injury. Think of people with
speech problems. Think of the kids with learning or behavioral
conditions, such as ADHD or dyslexia. Think of the person in a
wheelchair, or the blind person that is talked to as if they had an
intellectual disability. Think of anyone that is "different." The R-
word is hurtful, hateful, and targets the most vulnerable of our

As adults, we set the tone and expectations for youth. How can I
expect young people to make a better choice of words, when adults
all around them are in the habit of throwing around the
word "retard" casually? Like when a nurse at a doctor's office
referred to a crooked-swimming fish in the aquarium as "retarded"
before I turned around holding my son with Down syndrome. Or the
mom, from this list, whom I like and admire, who used the
phrase, "That is just retarded." Or my husband's co-worker's spouse
at a family-oriented pool party saying something was "so retarded."
Fortunately, Rigel is too young to understand that this word applies
to him.

As a mom, even before having a child with a diagnosis, I realized
how my views shaped my child, and how powerful words can be. We
avoid using the word "fat" in this household, instead focusing on
what is "healthy." We avoid even using the word "stupid," instead
discussing "smart" choices or "better" decisions. Aren't we all
more polite drivers when our kids are in the car with us? They
learn from us – we are powerful models.

While I doubt that many of my mom friends with young children would
waste the rare "date night" seeing this movie, thus requesting a
boycott would seem superfluous, there are things we can do. You can
stop using the R-word. You can educate other people that do use it,
about its harmful ramifications. You can not tolerate its use in
your presence – such as leaving the room, as I do when I hear racist
jokes. You can teach your children to stand up for those that are
younger or weaker, or who are for some reason unable to defend
themselves. You can teach your children the difference between
humor and humiliation. You can realize that some of our lazy
vocabulary choices reflect a poverty of words, and can come up with
better choices. You can learn that you, having gifts of intellect,
appearance, education, and strength, can afford to be more generous
to those who do not. You can forward this note to whomever you

While this is the end of my note, I am including links to recent
articles written about this issue. And, I am including the text of
a powerful speech written by a courageous and wise high school
student last year about the R-word.

Thank you, and please pass this along....
(about the speech, below)

High School Speech
By Soeren Palumbo
I want to tell you a quick story before I start. I was walking
through hallways, not minding my own business, listening to the
conversations around me. As I passed the front door on my way to my
English classroom, I heard the dialogue between two friends nearby.
For reasons of privacy, I would rather not give away their race or

So the one girl leans to the other, pointing to the back of a young
man washing the glass panes of the front door, and says, "Oh my gaw!
I think it is so cute that our school brings in the black kids from
around the district to wash our windows!" The other girl looked up,
widened her slanted Asian eyes and called to the window washer,
easily loud enough for him to hear, "Hey, Negro! You missed a spot!"
The young man did not turn around. The first girl smiled a bland
smile that all white girls - hell, all white people - have and
walked on. A group of Mexicans stood by and laughed that high pitch
laugh that all of them have.

So now it's your turn. What do you think the black window washer
did? What would you do in that situation? Do you think he turned and
calmly explained the fallacies of racism and showed the girls the
error of their way? That's the one thing that makes racism, or any
discrimination, less powerful in my mind. No matter how biased or
bigoted a comment or action may be, the guy can turn around and
explain why racism is wrong and, if worst comes to worst, punch `em
in the face.

Discrimination against those who can defend themselves, obviously,
cannot survive. What would be far worse is if we discriminated
against those who cannot defend themselves. What then, could be
worse than racism?

Look around you and thank God that we don't live in a world that
discriminates and despises those who cannot defend themselves. Thank
God that every one of us in this room, in this school, hates racism
and sexism and by that logic discrimination in general. Thank God
that every one in this institution is dedicated to the ideal of
mutual respect and love for our fellow human beings. Then pinch
yourself for living in a dream. Then pinch the hypocrites sitting
next to you. Then pinch the hypocrite that is you.

Pinch yourself once for each time you have looked at one of your
fellow human beings with a mental handicap and laughed. Pinch
yourself for each and every time you denounced discrimination only
to turn and hate those around you without the ability to defend
themselves, the only ones around you without the ability to defend
themselves. Pinch yourself for each time you have called someone
else a "retard."

If you have been wondering about my opening story, I'll tell you
that it didn't happen, not as I described it. Can you guess what I
changed? No, it wasn't the focused hate on one person, and no it
wasn't the slanted Asian eyes or cookie cutter features white people
have or that shrill Hispanic hyena laugh (yeah, it hurts when people
make assumptions about your person and use them against you doesn't

The girl didn't say "hey Negro." There was no black person.
It was a mentally handicapped boy washing the windows. It was "Hey
retard." I removed the word retard. I removed the word that destroys
the dignity of our most innocent. I removed the single most hateful
word in the entire English language.

I don't understand why we use the word; I don't think I ever will.
In such an era of political correctness, why is it that retard is
still ok? Why do we allow it? Why don't we stop using the word?
Maybe students can't handle stopping - I hope that offends you
students, it was meant to - but I don't think the adults, here can

Students, look at your teacher, look at every member of this
faculty. I am willing to bet that every one of them would throw a
fit if they heard the word faggot or *** - hell the word Negro -
used in their classroom. But how many of them would raise a finger
against the word retard? How many of them have? Teachers, feel free
to raise your hand or call attention to yourself through some other
means if you have.

That's what I thought. Clearly, this obviously isn't a problem
contained within our age group.

So why am I doing this? Why do I risk being misunderstood and
resented by this school's student body and staff? Because I know how
much you can learn from people, all people, even - no, not even,
especially - the mentally handicapped.

I know this because every morning I wake up and I come downstairs
and I sit across from my sister, quietly eating her Cheerio's. And
as I sit down she sets her spoon down on the table and she looks at
me, her strawberry blonde hair hanging over her freckled face almost
completely hides the question mark shaped scar above her ear from
her brain surgery two Christmases ago.

She looks at me and she smiles. She has a beautiful smile; it lights
up her face. Her two front teeth are faintly stained from the years
of intense epilepsy medication but I don't notice that anymore. I
lean over to her and say, "Good morning, Olivia." She stares at me
for a moment and says quickly, "Good morning, Soeren," and goes back
to her Cheerio's.

I sit there for a minute, thinking about what to say. "What are you
going to do at school today, Olivia?" She looks up again. "Gonna see
Mista Bee!" she replies loudly, hugging herself slightly and looking
up. Mr. B. is her gym teacher and perhaps her favorite man outside
of our family on the entire planet and Olivia is thoroughly
convinced that she will be having gym class every day of the week. I
like to view it as wishful thinking.

She finishes her Cheerio's and grabs her favorite blue backpack and
waits for her bus driver, Miss Debbie, who, like clockwork, arrives
at our house at exactly 7 o'clock each morning. She gives me a quick
hug goodbye and runs excitedly to the bus, ecstatic for another day
of school.

And I watch the bus disappear around the turn and I can't help but
remember the jokes. The short bus. The "retard rocket." No matter
what she does, no matter how much she loves those around her, she
will always be the butt of some immature kid's joke. She will always
be the butt of some mature kid's joke. She will always be the butt
of some "adult's" joke.

By no fault of her own, she will spend her entire life being stared
at and judged. Despite the fact that she will never hate, never
judge, never make fun of, never hurt, she will never be accepted.
That's why I'm doing this. I'm doing this because I don't think you
understand how much you hurt others when you hate. And maybe you
don't realize that you hate. But that's what it is; your pre-emptive
dismissal of them, your dehumanization of them, your mockery of
them, it's nothing but another form of hate.

It's more hateful than racism, more hateful than sexism, more
hateful than anything. I'm doing this so that each and every one of
you, student or teacher, thinks before the next time you use the
word "retard," before the next time you shrug off someone else's use
of the word "retard". Think of the people you hurt, both the
mentally handicapped and those who love them.

If you have to, think of my sister. Think about how she can find
more happiness in the blowing of a bubble and watching it float away
than most of us will in our entire lives. Think about how she will
always love everyone unconditionally. Think about how she will never
hate. Then think about which one of you is "retarded."

Maybe this has become more of an issue today because society is
changing, slowly, to be sure, but changing nonetheless. The mentally
handicapped aren't being locked in their family's basement anymore.
The mentally handicapped aren't rotting like criminals in
institutions. Our fellow human beings are walking among us,
attending school with us, entering the work force with us, asking
for nothing but acceptance, giving nothing but love. As we become
more accepting and less hateful, more and more handicapped
individuals will finally be able to participate in the society that
has shunned them for so long. You will see more of them working in
places you go, at Dominicks, at Jewel, at Wal-Mart. Someday, I hope
more than anything, one of these people that you see will be my

I want to leave you with one last thought. I didn't ask to have a
mentally handicapped sister. She didn't choose to be mentally
handicapped. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I have learned
infinitely more from her simple words and love than I have from any
classroom of "higher education." I only hope that, one day, each of
you will open your hearts enough to experience true unconditional
love, because that is all any of them want to give. I hope that,
someday, someone will love you as much as Olivia loves me. I hope
that, someday, you will love somebody as much as I love her. I love
you, Olivia.

Soeren Palumbo is a senior honors student at Fremd High School in
Wheeling, Illinois, and big brother to Olivia. During Writer's Week
(in March 2007), he gave the following speech to a gymnasium full of
his high school peers and faculty and received a standing ovation.

For the record, I did go to see this movie, and I walked out. I wish I had known all this before I went to see it.
I used to love Ben Stiller.


  1. beth kery // 12:28 a.m.  

    This was an excellent, thought provoking, and compassionate post. I've never been to this blog before. I skimmed everything else, and read every word of this. Thanks.

  2. beth kery // 12:28 a.m.  

    This was an excellent, thought provoking, and compassionate post. I've never been to this blog before. I skimmed everything else, and read every word of this. Thanks.

  3. Seneca // 8:52 a.m.  

    Thanks for stopping by Beth :)
    I'm glad you liked this post. This topic means a lot to me.