*Names have been changed in order to respect privacy*
Before I met Samantha, I didn’t really have a connection or know anyone with an intellectual disability. I nonchalantly used “retarded” and “demented” in my vocabulary to describe things I didn’t like or that seemed messed up. During my freshman year of high school, I decided to volunteer with Special Olympics in order to fulfill a fraction of my required service hours. Nervously, I became the buddy to Samantha, a then 11 year-old girl with Down syndrome who obsessed over Justin Bieber. Six years later, Samantha and her family still remain a part of my life; she’s helped me get ready for prom, celebrated the 4th of July, and sat beside me on her family couch chatting about boyfriends and Selena Gomez.
In the past year, I’ve heard more and more people saying the dreaded word, “retarded”. Before “Spread the Word to End the Word” movement, many of us failed to recognize the impact of our language. Honestly, I changed my vocabulary after I had fostered a connection with Samantha because she put a face behind the word.
I decided to interview Samantha’s mom in order to unveil her perspective as a mother and advocate for a more positive and inclusive community. Before having Samantha, Anne “never involved herself with Special Needs.” When she got pregnant, her blood tests indicated that her baby might have an intellectual disability. Anne recalls her OBGYN asking her if she’d like to terminate the pregnancy; “no one wants to hear those words: would you like to terminate your baby?”
Today, we have designer babies. We also can detect any potential threats or abnormalities pertaining to the fetus. Anne’s OBGYN could not confirm that Samantha would have Down syndrome, but still voiced the topic of termination.
“I actually waited to tell my mom about the blood tests because I wanted her to enjoy the pregnancy before her first grandchild,” Anne says while shaking her head in disbelief. It seemed as though the lack of support from her OBGYN and doctors formed a cloud of shame around Anne and unborn Samantha. What for though? Why?
“I saw her little hand,” Anne smiles while looking at Samantha, “and I kept saying ‘oh my gosh she has Down Syndrome – I love her, I love her, I love her.” The entire mood changed in the room when the doctors examined her. Imagine witnessing a birth, the most beautiful and miraculous event humans share in, and it not contain any joy or sureness from the doctors or nurses. This describes Samantha’s first welcome into the world.
While much has changed, and progress continues to pave the way forward, work remains for us to complete. The word “retarded” still rolls off the tongues of many who choose to either ignore the severity of their language or who wallow in social ignorance. Our world likes to place labels on everything; it helps things become familiar and tangible for us. Saying something or someone’s actions are “retarded”, really just skews a medical term into hurtful and dehumanizing jargon. “The medical community has pulled away from labeling children with MR (mental retardation) due to the offense behind it,” Anne comments. “It’s amazing how slow things take to change.”
Will things ever change? How will I respond next time my coworker calls our job “retarded”? What will you do when you overhear people joking about how “retarded” their friend is? It’s true that my sensitivity to language began because of my connection and relationship with Samantha and her family. Maybe that’s the solution to this problem; maybe everyone should strive to reach beyond themselves, and towards forming unexpected relationships with others. It could start with a person with an intellectual disability, but is definitely not limited. Facets such as race, gender, sexuality, and culutre currently divide us. Language can either act as a barrier or a bridge; we have the power to choose the impact of our words.
“I always wish I could speak out and do more. The things Samantha do amaze me – I want her to grow up in a place where people just accept and love her.”
Let’s start talking today.
Featured Image via NJ.com.