The nudge comes the way it usually does. “Did you see this?” asked a dear friend in an email forwarded from The Arc of Washington. The subject line: “A statement on use of R word in state Senate.”
And our hearts sink again as they usually do when that word is bandied about so casually and thoughtlessly.
The term mental retardation was often a medical diagnosis for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Until 1992, the word actually was part of the Arc’s name.
The R word was intended as an improvement over the term “feebleminded.” In genealogy work, I found a U.S. Census document from the 1800s that referred to “idiots.”
But the word has become a slur, freighted by playground taunts and chiding from parents toward their children to act better, more socially acceptable, not to be “the other.” It is used as an insult. It hurts individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And it hurts those like my friend and me who, mom to mom, have shared the joys and challenges of raising our now grown children with disabilities.
So it was especially disappointing to hear it from state Sen. Ann Rivers, a respected lawmaker who has championed legislation and funding for this community with many among Washington’s most vulnerable residents.
In a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, the La Center Republican was arguing in support of an issue under discussion, when she dropped the bomb.
“There is no way foundational health doesn’t get funded this year, so … we would have to be retarded or idiots or something if we didn’t fund that.”
Ouch! I thought of my son, who can’t speak for himself on the topic. But here’s how it landed with a young woman with intellectual disabilities who speaks poignantly about the impact of that word on her and in society.
“I hate that word,” said Ivanova Smith, chair of Self Advocates in Leadership. “I was called that word a lot in school. I had a lot of self-hatred over it.
She was born in Latvia, an orphan who spent five years in an institution. She has autism and mild intellectual disabilities. None of that has stopped her from emerging as a leader and advocate for people like my son and others.
Society needs to change its view and not use that word, she says. “These people need to be seen as positives, not negatives.
“We’ve had to fight to do adult things, to have children, to get married, to live the lives we want to lead,” said Smith, who lives in Tacoma.
After watching the TVW video of the Senate hearing, my inner Mama Bear stirred, as it has whenever I’ve heard that word, whether from a respected colleague in my professional organization, a fellow mother in the toy department, or a store clerk explaining why she left the ink-tag on my son’s jacket: “We’re not retarded …,” said my colleague at our national board meeting. “Don’t be retarded,” the mother told her son. “I’m so retarded,” the clerk said, right in front of my then-teenager.
Then I reason with Mama Bear that this is a time, not for ripsnorting confrontation, but for education. I clear my throat, then begin the conversation.
Which is how I came to talk with Sen. Rivers Thursday.
Rivers, who has people with developmental disabilities in her family and social circles, was disappointed in herself.
“I meant to say ridiculous, but I clearly didn’t say ridiculous, ” she said. She says she would have been shocked if a colleague had used the word.
“I don’t begrudge anyone one bit of anger or frustration. I beat myself up all day about it. I feel tearful as I think about it,” she said over Zoom.
She soon got in touch with people she knew would be disappointed, including Darla Helt, executive director of Parents Empowered, Communities Enhanced (PEACE).
“I was shocked to hear that word come out of her mouth,” said Helt, a Vancouver mother of two adults with disabilities. Her agency helps adults find the opportunities they need to live full lives in their community.
“I’ve never known her to be anything but an incredible advocate for people with developmental disabilities, not just in the Senate but in the community,” Helt said. “She is someone we can always count on.”
But … about that word?
“I know how important words are and how they can hurt, ” Helt said. “But actions matter, too. I hope we can all give each other a little grace when we make a mistake.”
As for Smith, she looks forward to meeting with Rivers to find ways to ensure all people regardless of their abilities are respected and have opportunities.
“We would love to meet with her and talk about how this word has affected our community,” she said.
At the same Senate committee’s Friday meeting, Rivers took a few minutes to publicly apologize to her colleagues and members of the community. And on Wednesday, at the invitation of The Arc of Washington, Rivers will attend, virtually of course, the next Advocacy Day to continue the conversation.
That is an important conversation we all should care about.