“Never was so much owed by so many to so few”
“I have a dream…”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
Words have tremendous power. They can be beautiful, they can resonate. They can motivate and inspire. They can tear down and they can harm. The best of them will be remembered and they will be recorded. For some people, all of the words that they utter will be listened to, analysed and repeated. For others, they’ll feel like they are shouting in a world where no one listens. But be certain, words have power.
There are countless things that I have said in my life that I’m ashamed of, that I shouldn’t have said and that have caused harm. I hope there are some things that I have said that have inspired, built-up and conveyed love. I try to choose my words carefully, I don’t always get it right. Far from it!
Sixteen years ago, a baby girl came into my life and I began to learn far more about words. How sometimes, you can’t find the right ones. Sometimes they form sentences that you just don’t understand and how, used in the right way, words can comfort and encourage. I learnt that words can carry connotations missed by some, held aloft by others and that words can label.
We know the impact of words in our society, the old adage ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’ is so far from the truth that it has become laughable. I’m sure we can remember words and labels that have been thrown at us in anger over the years, it can be hard to shake them off.
That little girl, my baby sister, has fought the negative impact of words for 16 years. She’s been labelled, spoken down to, hurt and dismissed. All by the use of negative words. Of course, she’s also been blessed, encouraged, lifted up and praised by positive words. As her siblings, we’ve learnt to protect her physically and emotionally. We’ve fought battles for her and taught her how to fight her own. She’s growing up an independent young woman of whom I am incredibly proud. Yet still fiercely protective of, becomes sometimes, she needs a louder voice to shout for her.
Alice has Down’s Syndrome. One extra little chromosome on the 21st pair. A triple shot instead of a double. If that triplicate had occurred on most of the other chromosomes, it wouldn’t have been compatible with life. That slight variation in genetics leads to some “typical” physical characteristics and can result in learning delay. Alice looks like she has Down’s Syndrome but she looks far more like her family than she does anyone else with DS – so no, for the record, they “do not all look the same”. Alice is a teenage girl, with teenage strops to match, so again, no, people with DS aren’t “all so loving”, they have emotions just like everyone else! Alice learns at her own pace and in her own way. She’s particular and she is stubborn. She’s the most compassionate person I know.
For Alice, words have huge impact. If you say something, you better make sure you do it or mean it. For her, it’s “I can” where others say “you can’t”. For her, it’s “I’m normal”, where others say “You’re not”. For her, it’s “I’m an achiever” where others say “you’re a retard”.
That word. Six letters that hold so much within them. My parents always told me “you’ve got to pick your battles”. This is one of mine.
It’s a word that is used to insult and injure. However, it is so much more than that. It is used as an insult to describe someone who has made a mistake, been slow to grasp a situation or perhaps said something deemed as silly. The person using the word wants to insult and demote, to separate the other person off, to label them as different.
As a group of people, those with Down’s Syndrome and other learning difficulties, have fought for the last few decades to be respected, included and given access to everything their peers take for granted. Using a word such as this as a slur, chips away at the respect that is hard fought for. It makes it OK to infer that people with learning disabilities are inferior and the discrimination it encourages is painfully real.
I’m in my mid-twenties now, more confident and willing to call people out on their use of the words “retard”, “retarded” or “tard” than I was when Alice was first born. You can call me over-sensitive to it, yes there are other words that society use in everyday speech that are rooted in slurs towards minority groups and no, that’s not OK either. But this is my battle.
Often I hear “They’re just words!” “I didn’t mean anything by them!” “I wasn’t talking about an actual person!”, I understand that. The word has been absorbed into popular culture, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
The words are being used to define someone as inferior, as lesser and as not normal. That’s not OK. So I will continue to correct and highlight the use of the word, because I want to protect Alice and to encourage her to carry on breaking down stereotypes. Everyday she faces the power of words, she has to prove herself as able and competent. She is at mainstream school and she fights to keep up. In society, she has to tolerate being ignored, patronised and spoken down to. That’s not OK. And it’s not OK that Alice should hear the word retard used in every day language, it’s certainly not OK for it to be directed to her and it being used as a poor, ignorant and uneducated stereotype to insult is most definitely not OK either.
Alice loves comedy, she adores Miranda Hart and has a wicked sense of humour of her own. She flicks on the television and watches comedy, just like many other teenagers Some comedians have been called out for referring to “retards” in their material. It demonstrates ignorance to try and make comedy out of something you clearly do not understand and it makes it socially acceptable to use the word. If they did understand, the word wouldn’t come into their vocabulary as, of all people, those who use words for a living, should really know better.
So this is one of the words I hate the most and this is why.
My Mother wrote a talk recently and in it she said “I wouldn’t change my daughter for the world, but I would change the world for my daughter.” I can echo that sentiment.
So please, next time you go to use the word “retard” as a slur, think twice and come up with something else to say.
The 21st March is World Down’s Syndrome Day, chosen because it represents the third chromosome that is present on the 21st pair.
Spread the Word, to End the Word is a campaign against the ‘r’ word. Support them by signing their petition.