Columns

2009.07.22 Think before you speak

on . Posted in Midnight Musings

Son-in-law Taylor fills in

 

By TAYLOR BALLINGER

Every time I come to Michigan I can expect to write a column. It’s just the way it works. I guess when you marry a newspaper editor’s daughter it is to be expected, especially when you have no other transferable skills to bring to the new family. But never have I tried two in one week, which has stretched my brain a bit considering it’s summer and I’m a teacher so it’s bona-fide break time.

I’ve spent the past two days trying to figure out the topic of my second column. I couldn’t think of anything too topical or funny. It’s too early to start writing about basketball. I certainly don’t want to upset the readers by breaking down the clear superiority of SEC football, especially in comparison with the Big Ten. 

So, after much thought, I have decided to share with you something that has weighed heavily on my heart for the past two years, which is the overwhelming commonness with which the r-word is used.

The r-word, for those of you who are not educators or friends/family of a person with special needs, is “retarded.” It is a word which I threw around with regularity in my days as a schoolboy, and a word that continues to be used rather loosely in many circles today.

A person who tripped in the hallway at school was a “retard.” Someone who had a hard time getting a point across was being “retarded.” A bad TV show automatically received the “retarded” label. It was easy to make fun of anyone by simply calling them a “retard” and making mocking hand gestures.

Then, two years ago, I started teaching Special Education. Most of my students fall under the actual definition of Mental Retardation, with varying degrees of severity, though those words are almost never used in formal settings.

My every waking moment has seemingly been devoted to my students since I have been teaching, and one thing has become abundantly clear; mental retardation does not equal stupid, and the word retard should certainly never be a synonym for something we may perceive as such.

Despite any number of academic and/or intellectual challenges, my students are smart. They are thoughtful, they are capable, and they are desperately willing to learn. Sure, they struggle with certain things. Most of my students are low-readers. Reading isn’t something that is naturally easy to them, and teaching them to become better readers requires much patience and inventiveness. But they’re not stupid. Some of my students have a hard time making rational decisions. They may not understand the logical reasoning of a cause and effect relationship. But they’re not stupid.

Just as a person who needs glasses to see should not be labeled as stupid and have to deal with extreme degradation, a person with special needs who requires extra assistance in school, independent living, or anything else should not be forced to live with the fact that their handicap is forever associated with stupidity.

Getting the r-word out of your vocabulary is not always easy. Some of my closest friends have needed to be admonished by me over and over. The easiest thing for me and Rosie is to be cognizant of what we’re describing when we may be tempted to use the r-word. If we’re angry about a bad waiter, he’s not retarded, he’s incompetent. If we’re upset about a bad movie, it’s not retarded, it’s poorly made. If we feel like laughing about someone who fell down in the park, he or she is not a retard, just a bit clumsy.

If that doesn’t work, try what I like to call the “ol’ switcheroo.” If you feel yourself about to call something retarded, stop, and say “reee-diculous.” Over time, you’ll get used to saying ridiculous, or just describing things as they are, instead of making a simple blanket insult.

It would be foolish of me to expect that you all will have the same connection to people with special needs as I have had since 2007. If you do, there is no doubt in my mind that you will view them in a different light. For those of you who will have limited interactions with people with special needs, remember they’re as smart and capable as anyone else.

Thinking anything else is just ridiculous.

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