Walking through the corridors of my school, I sometimes hear some commonly and inappropriately used expressions, but no word pops up as often as the ever-popular "Retard." Used with prefixes like "that" or "you", this word is coming out of the mouths of teeny-boppers everywhere. We like to call it everyday talk, but adults often call it "verbal abuse with a negative connotation against people with less intelligence or who are mentally challenged." Seriously, do you even realize how many of your peers use this word? Perhaps you use it, too.
Now, when we use this word, we intend to say that something is stupid, but we all know what it really means. Although kids do not realize that they are contributing to the highest form of discrimination, and making their environment awkward and uncomfortable, they know what it means. They don't even stop to think about it in the middle of their daily drama, for they have bigger things to worry about. Why do kids say this? I don't know. They probably heard someone cool saying it, like an older brother or sister, or friend - who knows? Maybe they just want to fit in. The point is, people say this too often, and it needs to stop.
When I was young, my little brother Cameron made friends with a boy, Tyler, who had moved in a couple houses down from us. I have always called Tyler's parents by their first names, Art and Sue, and before we knew it, our parents were best friends and we were having cookouts every weekend. It was at these cookouts that I met Katie, Tyler's little sister.
Even though I was young, I realized that Katie was different the first day I met her. Not different in a bad way, but different. Whatever it was, I couldn't explain it. I remember sitting in their kitchen, with my feet inches from the ground, watching Katie sign things to her mom. She would make noises and cry, and use all sorts of unusual body language.
I knew she was different from other kids. Maybe it was the way her eyes slanted, or how she never talked to me. But she always had a smile on her face, that's for sure. The sky could be falling, but Katie would watch her ice-skating tape, rewinding it every 15 seconds and smiling like the world was hers. This is how I grew to love her.
One day, on a long road trip, my brother started annoying me and calling me names. I got angry and screamed at him, "Stop being so retarded and just shut up!" My mom instantly swerved to the side of the highway, got out of the car, and opened my door. She yelled and screeched so loud and fast that I started crying. I had only said he was retarded because I knew it was bad but I didn't know what it meant. I'd heard my older cousin say it to her sister, so I figured it would make me look cool. What it actually did was infuriate my mother. She said I was making fun of Katie and other kids with special needs when I used that word.
Eventually, I figured out that Katie has Down syndrome. According to BestBuddies.org, more than 7.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation, and meaning that from childhood, a person develops at a below-average rate) and more than 100,000 newborns are added to this number annually. Three out of every 100 children born in this country have, or will develop, an intellectual disability. This proved to me that Katie is normal, but different.
Katie is now ten. Last May, Katie's parents had a fundraiser for Best Buddies, an organization that raises money for research on Down syndrome. Its mission is to "enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment."
So next time you hear yourself saying "That's so retarded" or something like that, stop yourself. It not only makes you look immature and mean, but people will think less of you. If it is a habit, try to stop by realizing how many times a day you say it. You will learn that if you act more mature, people will treat you better.
So, do yourself, Katie, and the people around you a favor, and don't discriminate to be cool. You'll find that your restraint will have a lot more of an effect on the world than you think.
Reprinted with permission from Down Right Active newsletter.
This article first appeared in issue #13 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us