Thursday, November 21, 2013

When "Retarded" is Someone You Love

For my degree I am taking a Multicultural Counseling course.  I have some confessions to make.  I didn't think I needed this class.  I am a caring, accepting, empathetic, non-bigoted person.  Why do I need to take a class teaching me that I assume is just going to teach me that I am not those things by virtue of my race?  It's silly. People are people and I am being trained to counsel people.  Right?

Well, maybe not right. Counseling people from different backgrounds or heritages or cultures requires some understanding of the issues they face based on those backgrounds.  I was okay with that.  I thought, sure, I need some better understanding of what clients may be dealing with so that I can find out to what degree those things are issues to them and help them with that.  Just the awareness that I may not really understand will be helpful. Knowing that I need to educate myself on different cultures and traditions will make a difference. This will be good.  I am all set.

But then we studied microaggressions. Something clicked. Microaggressions I understand. I experience. I realized that I may very well be guilty of committing them myself.  Because the whole idea behind a microaggression is that the perpetrator is unaware that he or she is doing or saying anything offensive. That fact makes these more painful to deal with than outright racism or sexism or heterosexualism or ableism.  When faced with outright bigotry, anger is clearly justified, and I personally believe that it's ultimately easier to dismiss and rise above.  When faced with a kind stranger, acquaintance, colleague, friend, or family member who unconsciously hurts you it's somehow even more hurtful, because you don't expect it from them.  It's emotionally taxing to have the internal dialogue: "Did that just really happen?  Don't they get it? Should I say something? Will that just make it worse?" When you find yourself having that dialogue with yourself over and over, it's easy to become jaded and defensive.

I'm going to explain what I mean with my experiences.  I think it is easy to see how this applies to other people.

I've written about my oldest daughter before.  She's now 19, living in the basement apartment of our home, and attending a continuing ed program offered through the local school district.  She is mentally retarded.  Her IQ is low.  Her functional IQ, though still in that disabled range, is higher.  She has no syndrome, no birth defect, no disease.  She is just retarded. This fact is not a secret.  Strangers don't know unless I tell them because in their eyes she looks "normal" (whatever that means).

Here is another confession:  as a teen, I was guilty of using the word "retarded" to describe someone, or more often something, as inadequate on some level. I frequently laughed at the antics of a good friend who had an entire routine about the "special bus." It's embarrassing. All I can say is that I was young, insecure, and just didn't stop to think.

Now I think, because now that word has a different meaning to me personally. It describes someone I love. So when a stranger (who doesn't know my daughter) or especially when someone I care for (who does know her) says in my presence "that's retarded" instead of maybe "that's ridiculous," I am hurt.  Because whether they think they are saying this or not what I hear is, "Sadie is ridiculous." Yes, I know they "don't mean it that way" and are more than likely just not thinking.  But that doesn't stop it from hurting. This isn't about being PC.  It's about simple kindness and decency and respect. It's about being caring and thoughtful. Is that too much to ask of my fellow humans? If so, I'm saddened by what that says about us.

"You are being oversensitive." Another microaggression in itself, this statement is demeaning.  It implies that my experiences and my feelings are trivial. That someone's insensitivity or ignorance is my problem, rather than theirs. I don't buy it.

Ash Beckam has become a favorite subject for my youtube stalking.  She has amazing perspective on being understanding of others' paths and still speaking out for what is right. Her talk about combating the pejorative use of the word "gay" has, along with this Multicultural Counseling class of mine, inspired me to stop being silent about the pejorative use of the word "retarded."

So here is my plea: EXPAND YOUR VOCABULARY!  Learn words that tell what you want to say EVEN BETTER than words that are potentially hurtful to other people.  You will not miss those words, and in the end I am pretty sure you will be thankful to be done with them. Be aware of other things you may say to people that might be taken as insulting or demeaning.  Even expressing "colorblindness" gives the impression that race is something bad to be ignored. (That's a lesson I needed to learn!) Being aware is the best place to start. Those around you with struggles different from yours will be thankful to call you their true friend.

Watch "Ash Beckam Talks About the Word 'Gay'" here.  It's a good one. There's also a Tedx Talk she does about closets.  Check it out while you're there.

1 fishy comments:

Lisa said...

I can understand what you are saying becomes personal. No one really means it the way it comes out...It's like saying something is "bad" when you mean it is great. We have to overcome these habits that are insulting to others. We don't even realize it! Yikes...

I read somewhere that you can't say a brown bag lunch anymore, I think it was Washington? Because "brown bag" is insulting to some. While it is clear that the words 'retarded' and 'gay' are definitely abused in the wrong way, some things other people are far too sensitive about. I need to go pack my daughter's brown bag lunch...

By the way, your daughter is beautiful, and good to see you on here again...