“Retard! Retard!” It’s the shrill call of a vile black bird, a call I hear coming from the treetops and from behind dark clouds these days. I hear it, though others don’t, because I have an ear for it. Call it a gift. I received this gift four years ago, in a hospital delivery room, at the exact moment a nurse turned to me and told me that in all likelihood my had Down syndrome. He did. His name is Ozzie.
It’s a strange thing, this gift of mine. Because a word that used to zip right on past my ear without causing a ripple now leaves me feeling like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me. And it happens just about every day.
The English language is littered with the husks of words like "retard." We've invented awful slurs for every group of people imaginable. But for some reason, those other words are whispered behind backs, relegated to the shadows. "Retard" is not. This particular slur, and its many variations, fills the space on park benches between soccer moms. It's heard in movies and on TV shows and in the songs kids sing in front of grandma. It pops up in board meetings and in breakrooms and in coffee shop queues.
And online - especially online. The comments section of any web post, no matter what website or how benign the topic, always seems to tease a “retarded” comment out of a reader or two. And for the life of me I cannot understand why this is so. Because it hurts, and people know it hurts, because parents like me have told them so. Again and again.
I'm left to wonder why this word is so precious that we just can't seem to get by without it. I'm left to wonder why it still slips so from the mouths of celebrities and public figures. In the most recent example, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, tip of the Republican spear, posted a tweet insinuating that President Obama is pandering to the "retarded vote."
Here’s Ann’s tweet:
She could have insulted Obama's base with other words, but she didn't. She settled on "retarded." And she felt comfortable doing so, and that's a problem. I know Ann makes a living in the "shock and awe" arena, and I know she's famously abrasive and callous and mean, but I'm still mad. I'm mad that my son and others like him are collateral damage whenever someone feels like firing off an insult. I'm especially mad when celebrities do it, because they influence society at large. For her fans, Ann just reinforced the notion that "retard" is a go-to insult. Thanks, Ann. I'll remember that on some random Tuesday in my future when I come home from work and Ozzie is sobbing because some snot-nosed kid called him a retard on the playground.
Given that October is Down syndrome awareness month, I have two requests. First, I ask anyone who reads this to stop calling your coffee mug "retarded" when you can't get the lid to snap on tight. Stop saying it, and stop allowing it to be said around you. It's a slur that demeans a lot of people who have a hard enough time getting on with the business of life without having to deal with the constant reminder that a great swath of society thinks their existence is the world’s best punch line.
Second, I want Ann Coulter to apologize for using a form of hate speech that is particularly searing to people who have special needs. This isn’t the first time she has tweeted the word “retarded” to insult her rivals, and she needs to stop. Her behavior is not acceptable.
This isn't about Republicans versus Democrats, it's about having class and a little decency. And it’s about knocking a vile black bird out of the sky with a stone. Ozzie and I are waiting, Ann Coulter.
Dan Niblock lives in Durham, North Carolina with his lovely wife Dina and their two amazing children, Layla and Ozzie. You can read about Ozzie's birth story on Dan's blog, Down With Oz.