Monday, February 15, 2010

Words are powerful. Words hurt.

Retard. Retarded. These are the words that have caused much controversy over the last weeks. The buzz started with Rahm, Palin, and Rush. Some have said we have pushed the limit in what is “politically correct.” But is it? Is it wrong or offensive to use the r-word? Is it really a damaging word?

I want to tell you about our family, and I will share with you some personal and raw parts of our journey. I hope after you read this, that you will understand the power of words, and that some words, even when not intended to be harmful, can slowly destroy.

When my daughter Nichole was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome hung over me like a heavy, wet, blanket. It clung to me. It robbed me from any feelings of love and I wondered if there was a way out. My motherly instinct was nowhere to be found. I went through the motions of holding and nursing (pumping actually) because I had to, not because I wanted to. I cried. I cried several times a day. There was fear in the unknown; there were questions about the future, about our family and my oldest daughter.

Down syndrome. I knew many things about Down syndrome, and I knew of one word that would be used to describe my daughter. It was the R-word. Retarded.

I knew that someday, someone at her school might say to her, “Hey you retard!” With many laughs to follow such a comment. Or we might hear someone explaining her behaviors to another by saying, “She is retarded.”

There was something I knew about the word retard or retarded. It is a word used to describe something or someone that is stupid, ridiculous, or inadequate. It is a word used to make fun of others, to point out their flaws, or to put them down. It is a word used to destroy, to tear down. Was this really a word that would describe my daughter?

Thankfully, it did not take long for me to discover that my daughter was not what the word "retarded" means. My daughter was and is beautiful. She is not stupid, she is not ridiculous, and she is not inadequate. She has taught me more in her lifetime than I had learned in mine. She has been the greatest teacher I have had. She has inspired me more than anyone else I know. She has changed my life, the lives of our family, and of those that have gotten to know her.

My daughter has the ability to touch hearts and change lives. A quality that cannot be said of all people. She has shown me more love, joy, kindness, gentleness than I had ever known before. Indeed, her life has great meaning, great value, and she has so much more to offer.

And yet, the word “retard” continues to hang over us. Why? Because it is a word that continues to be used in a derogatory way. It hurts. It hurts our family. We fight this word, every day, every single day. We fight this word because everywhere we go, her characteristic features of Down syndrome set her apart. The stereotype that the word “retard” has perpetuated is engrained in our society, and so we fight against it, because she is so much more. She is full of potential, love, and joy.

There are obvious ways in which the r-word is offensive. But when it damages us the most is when it is said in ignorance. The facebook status or the teasing of a friend. It is not meant to be offensive, it is not meant to hurt. But even if it is not said with ill intent, it does. It hurts, it destroys.

My daughter is not stupid, ridiculous or inadequate. A word that has been used to mock people with intellectual disabilities makes othesr like my daughter wake up and face a world that has deemed her unworthy and incapable. Incapable because of a word. A word that is not who she is. She is capable, she has gifts, she has talents.

So next time you hear the R-word, next time if you think you might be about to say the R-word. Please stop and think. Think about my daughter, think about others that like her stand strong against the tide of a word that has labeled them in such a negative way, yet they have so much potential. As her family we stand with her, we stand strong, we fight.

Will you stand with us?

You can take the pledge to end the r-word by clicking here. (if you do, will you leave me a comment and tell me you made the pledge?)

I wrote this post a year ago when we were getting the MR waiver for Nichole, thankfully, it has been changed and is now called the ID waiver. Click here to read it.


  1. Beautifully written! Nichole truly is beautiful... anyone can see that. I made the pledge last year and will talk to the TK through 8th grade student body about it on 3/3/10. I'm also glad to read that the "MR" status was changed to "ID". Our kids have "delays" in some areas, but like you said, they are far superior in many other areas in terms of love, patience, acceptance. Thank you for your beautiful words.

  2. I have younger brother, age 17, who was diagnosed with a form of Autism when he was around 2 years old. Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. And like those with Down syndrome, Autistic children often get labeled as retarded, slow, or any number of derogatory clichés. But as I have seen over the past 17 years, people with these disorders are often times much more intelligent than we realize.
    For example: Sean, my brother, can tell me about something we did together 6 years ago in vivid detail. And many times I cannot remember what I had for breakfast.

    I am sure your little Nichole will turn out to be a dynamic and influential woman.

    I found your blog though your sisters post on Facebook.

  3. Nathan Hammer9:42 PM

    Hey Andy and Ellen. Yesterday I had a dream about you guys out of the blue. We were in a group and some people were making some jokes about 'retarded' people. Most everybody was laughing a ton, but then I looked at you guys. Your eyes were so intense, really angry and really hurt. I was really taken back, and then realized you were feeling all that because of Nichole. So then I woke up thinking I should be careful about my humor and what I laugh at. Anyhow, it was crazy that you wrote this so soon after that random dream... Well I love you guys, Bye!


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