that’s retarded

But for our part, we are trying to awaken the world to the need for a new civil rights movement — of the heart. ~ Timothy Shriver


Ed note: Yes, I did actually write the following note to my colleague. Yes, I actually asked him to lean over and read it on my computer screen. Yes, I really am that much of a wimp and yes, it was a little bit odd.

But, as you’ll see if you choose to continue reading even after this somewhat bizarre introduction, I decided that I owed it to my girls – BOTH of my girls – to say something. And twenty-four hours later, I can tell you that I’m very glad I did.

Dear [colleague at my new job who sits right next to me and who has thus far proven himself by both reputation and deed to be a man of integrity, professionalism and compassion, but who I really don’t know all that well after only six weeks],

OK, so despite the fact that you are approximately six inches from me, I’m wimping out and writing this instead of saying it because, well, I’m a wimp and I find this much easier.

I’d like to ask you a favor.

Earlier today you used the word ‘retarded’. It’s an easy go-to and one that I used casually for many years. But that changed four years ago when I had to register my daughter with the [State] Department of Mental Retardation (which thank God has since changed their name). The point was then driven home for me yet agin when she started at an integrated preschool and two of the most wonderful kids in her class had Down syndrome.

The thing is, I know that by absolutely no stretch of the imagination did you mean it maliciously, nor would you ever use it that way. Please know that I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But I have found that allowing the word to be an easily accessible part of our lexicon makes it easy for others to appropriate and misuse it.

Now here’s the thing. I likely wouldn’t have said anything but for this – my older daughter, [Katie] wrote the following just yesterday and I felt a responsibility to her to say something. I’m hoping that after you read it you’ll understand why I did. I sincerely hope this comes off the right way.

I truly appreciate your understanding.


The Saddest Word of All

by Katie, age 9

You know how Brooke says there are “sad words” right? Well, I think there really are some really, really sad words that I don’t think anybody should ever say. I mean, I know there are all the swears and grown-ups say them sometimes, but I’m not really talking about those. I’m talking about words that I don’t even think grown-ups should say either. OK, to the story.

I was at school the other day, packing up my bag to go home. There were two other people down at the lockers at that moment. There names were – well, I can’t say their real names, so I’ll make some up. Let’s go with, hmmm, Oliver and Billy. Well, they were talking about a boy (who we’ll call Zander, even though that’s not really his name) and I really didn’t like the way they were talking about him. They were saying really kind of mean things.

It’s true, Zander is not my favorite kid. He’s always trying to scare people even when they’re trying to be nice to him. But he IS a real person and he has feelings too. So even if he does things they don’t like, they wouldn’t be saying those things if he were standing there, so they really shouldn’t say it ever.

As I was packing, Oliver said something that made me REEEEEEEALLY angry. In his exact words, he said, “He must be retarded.”

I turned my head to him so fast that my hair hit my face really hard. But I didn’t care. I was so mad I had to say something. So I said, “You don’t say that word. If you’re going to say it again, I might have to tell Ms. C.”

And you know what he said back? He said, “Who cares? What’s so bad about saying retarded?”

That REALLY boiled me over. We had had lectures about this EXACT topic at LEAST twice this year. The principal, yes the PRINCIPAL, had talked about it over the intercom. Ms S, our school counselor had come into our classroom and talked about this whole thing. Ms C had also talked about this several times. So you see why I was mad. How could ANYBODY not know at this point?

But I didn’t know what to say so I went back to my locker and kept packing. That word ‘retarded’ stayed in my stomach all week. And it hurt. I always think of Brooke when people say that. Not in a bad way, in kind of a hurt way. My next door neighbor, “Natasha” had once come over to my house and we were all playing outside. My sister asked if she could play with us. It was kind of in a Brooke way, like “I would please play with you.” You know what Natasha said? She said, “No, she’s too dumb to play with us.” And when she told my sister that she couldn’t play, it hurt very badly.

At that time it might have been a little different because my sister couldn’t hear her or probably understand. But now that people are saying it IN SCHOOL and Brooke goes to the same school as me, I get a little nervous and scared that she’s going to come home one day and say, “What’s retarded?” because somebody called her that.

So you get the point, right? Why I’m really extra mad at Oliver (and still kinda mad at Natasha, even though she doesn’t do it anymore).

I really hope people don’t use that word about anybody. I just want the world to be a better place and I think it would be better WITHOUT that word in it.

Katie’s post can be found in its entirety at


Even before reading Katie’s post, he apologized profusely, which I assured him was not at all necessary. After he read it, he apologized some more. I told him yet again not to worry; my point was not to make him feel badly in any way. He then said, “I can’t promise I’ll never say it again. It’s pretty well engrained in my speech. But I swear I will try.”

I told him that was all I could ever ask, and I told him how grateful I was that he understood why I’d felt compelled to start the conversation.

I called Katie on my way home from work. I told her the story. I told her that I never would have had the courage to say something had it not been for HER courage. I told her how proud I was of her for forging the path, for making the people around her – including her mama – better people. I told her the ripples of the stone she’d thrown into the water would go far.

And as I hung up the phone, I quietly thanked God for the incredible teachers in my life  and the endless, life-changing ripples they leave behind.


Spread the Word to End the Word

The bigotry behind the word ‘retard’ by Timothy Shriver

Words Matter – or – They’re Both Fish

52 thoughts on “that’s retarded

  1. Katie is incredibly wise. Thanks to her and the person you are, you were incredibly brave to do what you did with your colleague. As I commented on Katie’s post the other day, I have also become that person over the past few years who never lets that word be said in my presence without explaining to the person why it should not be used. I never thought I could do that but I can and I do and I’m happy to do that although I wish I never had to.

    I love you,

    • “She will change the world (following in the footsteps of her mama.)”

      I was thinking the exact same thing. She is amazing.

  2. Oak trees and acorns,both you and she are so very special. Make her as strong as you can, for she will need to be very strong as she shapes our world, and she surely will.
    Love you all,

  3. Well, I can see that she has inherited all of the compassion and wisdom of her Mommy. Keep on teaching those lessons and hopefully each person can throw their own stone that can ripple and ripple…. Hopefully then,with all these small battles won we can end this War of hurtful language!! Congratulations!!

  4. Thank you for this. I am printing it out and handing it to my son’s principal to read. Clearly, she needs a reminder. Love u

  5. This is such an amazing post, by Katie first and your amazing response to her. And as always, you handled it respectfully, and I’m sure your colleague responded to THAT part as well.

  6. Jess, First of all… how God squeezed that much heart into that young lady of yours is certainly one of His great miracles… Wow.

    Secondly, that’s how we fix it… one person at a time, with a heartfelt explanation of how words can linger in the pit of our tummies long after they are casually thrown out there…

    Hub and I were watching a comedian the other night on Comedy Central… we both find this person humorous, lots of innapropriate jokes, but largely just his schtick and nothing over the line. Until… the last five minutes of his time was spent on “retarded” jokes. We were stunned. This was a 9pm show on a basic cable network and it was flirting with the word, it was an all-out assault. We turned it off and both just sat there, with lumps in our throats and rocks in our bellies. Neither one of us fell asleep for some time.

    Thanks so much for posting, but mostly, thanks for bringing two of the most precious young ladies into our world – Surely, they are the greatest gifts you could ever share with the rest of us on this rock.


  7. HI Jess,

    First of all, your daughter has surely inherited your writing and insight talent, God bless her. Thanks for sharing this story; your blog reaches so many people and your message is great to advocate not only for families like us living with autism, but with all other impairments.

  8. Obviously, the apple did not fall too far from the tree when it comes to your daughter. How incredibly insightful for her, and how wonderful for you to provide her a forum to express her feelings. Beautiful job for both of you!

  9. beautifully brave words from both of you. Not surprising, of course. Most of us would have just mumbled something under our breath.
    I had my 8 yr old son read Katie’s post last week when she wrote it, and we talked about it afterward. He said he had never even heard that word before. I was shocked, somewhat skeptical, but hopeful that he was telling me the truth. ’cause maybe something is working well in our little corner of the world.

  10. About three weeks ago, I sat in the waiting room while Evan (my son with Asperger’s) was in speech therapy. A sweet girl named Ashley with MS was getting physical therapy next door. An employee walked by and very loudly used the word “retarded.” I don’t know in what context because I wasn’t listening until she dropped the ‘R’ word. I was too shocked to say anything. Being surrounded by children receiving therapy for disorders and disabilities, made it all the more wrong. Next time I’ll be ready to speak up. Thank you Jess and Katie!!!!

  11. I am so blown away by this. By your courage in speaking up, even if it was in writing. By your co-worker’s ability to understand what you were saying and not get defensive. But most of all by your Katie’s amazing and articulate words. Thank you.

  12. On behalf of my cousin Michael thank-you:) My response to people using the “R” word is usually direct and to the point. After reading this post, I might try the, I know you don’t mean any harm….Can’t hurt and I am still doing right by all the Michael’s in the world.
    Ganks DOAM:)

  13. Katie is such a bright girl. She’s a credit to society, and we’re lucky to have people like her in the next generation.

    From reading your past posts on this, I made the attempt to take some time to talk to my friends about using the r word. We’re college age, so the word flies out of someone’s mouth every ten minutes. They all pretty much told me that I was making a big deal out of nothing. My best friend outright laughed at me until I brought up the point that it isn’t much work to choose a different adjective to avoid inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings.

    I still slip from time to time. I never realized how often I used to say it until I tried to stop. Now I catch myself calling careless drivers “rrr-jerks”. It’s a process, but you’re doing it, Jess. You changed at least one kid. I’m trying.

    • i think i love you. truly, thank you. from the bottom of my heart. i can’t tell you how much this means to me.

      and yeah, i use reeeeeee-diculous a lot. 😉

  14. Behavior can be un-taught – and sometimes all people need is help to open their eyes and hearts. I spread the word, and will keep doing so. Your girls have big hearts!

  15. Back in 2003, that word was part of my vocabulary. I over heard a conversation of a woman speaking to a client in regards to the usage of that word and how it tormented her brother who had long since passed. The passion and anger that emanated from her over that word changed my vocabulary FOREVER! The word ridiculous is now part of my everyday vocab. LOVE and miss.. kiss the Family!

  16. Your daughter is waaaaaay ahead of the learning curve if she already dislikes that word at age 9. Even though I grew up with a brother on the spectrum, I sometimes used it. NEVER as a way of describing someone, more as a synonym for concept that I thought was “dumb” (which I realize is not appropriate either). But even then I used it sporadically and always felt guilty as soon as it came out of my mouth.

    Now, I CRINGE when people use the word. Good friends and even extended family members use it all the time. My brother is diagnosed with mental retardation (or intellectual disability if you want to use the newer phrase), but I don’t consider him dumb by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, he’s not even close to being on par for a 20 year old, but he’s happy and that’s all that matters.

    • she is, but as she said in her post, there’s been a LOT of conversation at school about how hurtful the word can be. this year alone, the principal (i love how she capitalized THE PRINCIPAL as in – EVEN HER!!!), their school counselor and her primary teacher have all talked with them about it. and as you can see, she takes that stuff very seriously.

      and yes, happiness is the best label of them all!

      thank you so much for reading and commenting. i cherish your perspective.

  17. Jess, sometimes I think you have access to my mental to-do list, for your posts often guide me or nudge me toward something I’ve been meaning to do. Thanks to you and your daughter for the reminder that not using the R word myself is not enough…it’s time to “spread the word.” I’ll be sharing your post with friends and family. If your words don’t hit home, then Katie’s surely will.

  18. comments from diary’s facebook page:

    PLL ~ As the mom of a daughter who has been given this label I totally feel your pain when someone flippantly uses it. They have no idea how hurtful and offending it is. There is actually a facebook campain to get the word out about how offensive it is…

    Even the US House of Representatives realizes how offensive it is and voted to remove it from federal vocabulary (

    I applaud your courage to speak up to your coworker – if more people did the same thing the world would be a better place. Thank You!

    TB ~ Great post. I work at a school and I educate kids about this word every time I hear it. The bad thing is that I hear adults use it even more than kids and I correct them too.

    GP ~ Thank-you for this and I will be re-posting it. When my son was newly diagnosed a year ago, we actually had an older family member say, “Oh, he has Autism, so he’s retarded?” (Ignorance in it’s purest form) It took everything in my husband to not punch that little old woman out! It makes me angry. It’s a horrible word to use and a horrible slang word to use as well. (I’ll admit, I used to use it too until we were told at 23 weeks into my pregnancy with my son that he had a 1% chance of having Downs Syndrome, then that changed) We now take these experiences and try to make them poitive and use them as an opportunity to spread awareness.

    BH ‎:(

    CB ~ Great piece. Curious – was there any response from the recipient? I think I’d be hiding behind my e-mail too. My husband confronted a coworker about his contanst derogatory use of “short bus” in a similar fashion and it didn’t exactly strike fertile ground. (We were happy when he was subsequently laid off. Karma.)

    JW ~ I absolutely hate any references to riding the short bus. It has gotten me to the point of throwing punches in the past. I have learned that didn’t usually get me too far. Instead I make a comment about oh he rides the short bus maybe he knows my son. He usually sits in the second row.
    TRH ~ I wish some of the adults I deal with were as wise as katie. I cant stand that word or any reference to that direction. My niece who is only 6yrs. knows better then most adults to the extent of how hurtful that word can be, she herself had made it clear to a group of teens a few months back when I took her on an outing with my William she refers to him and others like him as special angels 🙂 she knows how bright and wonderful they are in there own way. She to is wise beyond her years and I am proud of her.

    Diary of a Mom C – the response was wonderful. As I said in the post, he was very apologetic and promised to do everything he could to remove it from his language. The following day, one slipped out and he immediately caught himself and apologized. We even talked about socially acceptable alternatives to it.

    As hard as it can be for us to hear, I find that when we approach these situations in anger we lose the opportunity to educate. When we can slowly and rationally discuss WHY these words are hurtful, I think we have the most impact.

    CB ~ I somehow missed the last paragraphs…adhd – or kids going to school or something. Thanks for responding though because it made me go take a second look. I’m glad his response was so positive, and honest. Unfortunately sometimes even when we are reasoned in the approach, some people just don’t get it.

    LKC ~ Brava, Katie, and to you too, Jess. People don’t realize how hurtful and offensive the word is. Here’s a piece I wrote about it at the Huffington Post last year.

    CW ~ I have had this conversation at work before, to which, my coworkers ROLLED THEIR EYES!

    SGT ~! I think Shriver said it well – it is a matter of the heart. Other words, used in the same manner, would be just as hurtful. I think that the urge to belong (cling to normalcy and reject those who are different) is very old and instinctive. It is still a matter of survival for most species. As others here have noted, a word that once seemed to fall harmlessly from the lips now has barbs that dig at the heart. I never thought too much about it until a few years ago. Then that word was applied to a member of my family, and I suddenly had to confront the implications of it and was taken aback at the emotional impact. Most people simply haven’t had to think about it that hard. Maybe they just want to feel like they won’t be the one picked off from the edges of the herd tod ay.

    SRR ~ unfortunately even being kind and gentle sometimes doesn’t work, and it also doesn’t mean we give up either:)

  19. Looks like I am a day late and dollar short, as usual!! However I did just read this article on Huffington Post from a Jr in High School, who is expressing her feelings. If you want to delete it you can.. but I thought it was very good, and actually would make you more proud of Katie..she is one very special girl 🙂
    I don’t know what you feel about links.. just let me know if you would prefer not to have them 🙂

  20. I have an darling adopted daughter on the autism scale and has ADHD and Reactive Attachment Disorder. She has been with us since 8/05. I started hearing the “r” word in a whole new light and correct people, no matter who they are, every time I hear it! It’s just plain wrong no matter who is saying it about anyone!

  21. my daughter has asd add/adhd and mental retardation…hearing that word come out of other peoples mouths makes me cringe inside and I become extremely angry and frustrated…maybe they dont realize the impact that word has on someone..maybe they are ignorant..maybe they dont think still doesnt make it right.

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  23. Pingback: that’s retarded (via a diary of a mom) « The Simile of Autism and Snowflakes

  24. I’ve never been a wimp, so I have always spoken right up. I’ve been calling people out on racial slurs (living in the deep south, this can happen multiple times a day, i’m ashamed to say) since I was in grade school. I’ve gotten very good at making my point in a civil way that makes me look intelligent while making the perp look stupid. But this word hits too close to home and I get too angry. I’ve lost it a couple of times and lost a couple of (easily replaceable) friends in the process.

    It always takes courage to stand up and speak up against another person’s behavior. Especially if you’re a tolerant person. Good for you, Jess. For the record, I don’t think you’re a wimp even in the vaguest sense of the word. You took action. Period.

    “While we teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”

  25. We all have the desire to protect our children from the moment they are born. However, we will not always be there to shield them from what they might hear. I believe as parents we should want our children to be able to function in society. Unfortunately, an imperfect, and sometimes cruel society. Sometimes feelings get hurt. It is from our own pain and suffering that we can be more sympathetic . Teach your children of the ignorance of others. Give them the tools (knowledge)to protect themselves.

    • As I just posted on FB – I hear you and I absolutely agree that our responsibility as parents is to give our children the tools that will allow them to inure themselves to the sting of insults.

      However, that’s only half the battle. As I said above, this is about far more than hurt feelings. This is about normalized bigotry, societally accepted dehumanization of the differently abled, institutionalized cruelty. All the self esteem in the world can’t fight systemic discrimination.

  26. Pingback: Spread the Word to End the Word 2014 | The Jest_Tu_Positive Life©

  27. Pingback: Words Hurt - it Really is That Simple - Kat's Cafe

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