Autism Unexpected: Rahm Emanuel and the R-word

There are a lot of ugly words in use in society today. While people have different views on things such as curse words, nearly everyone will agree that racial epithets and slurs are unacceptable. But when it comes to calling people retarded, who cares, right?

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been in hot water since last week when the Wall Street Journal reported that a few months ago he referred to some liberal activists as “retarded.” Actually, let’s make that lukewarm water. Because, honestly, there’s only a small group of people who is aware of—or cares about—the sadness this word can cause when used pejoratively.

Emanuel has since apologized to the head of the Special Olympics (which runs a campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word“) but I’m sure the whole kerfuffle has some people shaking their heads and wondering why it matters.

I’ll tell you why it matters.

When someone uses the word “retarded” as a pejorative, it assumes that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are bad, wrong, or lesser. I have a young child with a developmental disability. I don’t want him to hear this epithet from the people who run our country, and feel that he is less important than anyone else. I wish that every time someone used the word “retard,” that they would have to stop and insert an ethnic or cultural pejorative instead, and listen to how it sounds.

Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who it’s against. And true diversity includes people with disabilities. Unfortunately, far too few people realize that. After all, we live in a world in which, less than a year ago, the president of the United States made a joke on national television about rolling such a bad bowling game that it was “like the Special Olympics or something.”

I’m not quite at the Sarah Palin level, asking for Emanuel to be fired. I believe passionately and strongly in freedom of speech. The answer isn’t to fire people for their speech. The answer isn’t to ban words or phrases. The answer is to bring awareness to how words can injure, and then hope that the awareness spreads.

It might actually be a good thing that this happened so publicly. Maybe it will bring the hurtfulness of this word into the open, because that message is not out there yet. I hear people use this word all the time. I’ve heard very smart, caring people who know I have an autistic son use it. I’ve heard doctors use it. On one memorable occasion, I even heard someone who runs a group home for individuals with disabilities use it.

Every time, it makes me cringe.

I have seen several articles about the Emanuel incident in which his slur is reproduced in print as, “f**king retarded.” I know which one of those words bothers me, and it isn’t the one with the asterisks in it.