This morning while at the doctor’s office for my yearly checkup, I was enjoying the conversation of my nurse and we got to laughing about different things, and then somehow the conversation took a turn for the worse and somehow led to her saying something along the lines of “People get offended by anything these days.”
In my mind, I was disappointed that the conversation took that turn because I don’t believe it has anything to do with “these days”. I believe that people are actually getting offended by the same thing that has been offending people for decades, if even centuries. The difference is that now people are not willing to let the offensive words, pictures, or remarks slide. People are not willing to be silenced by the accusation or fear of being accused that they are “too sensitive”. People are not willing to continue to be offended by others simply because they personally do not see the offense.
But what really had my mind spinning was after she said something about a current topic people are finding offense with. She followed her commentary up with, “It’s so retarded.”
My first thought was, “No, she didn’t.”
But she did. And as I sat there half-listening as she continued to talk, my mind was racing trying to decide if and how I should address her use of the r-word:
“She just said that people these days are too easily offended, and did I want to be one of those people, did I?”
“Should I even still bother saying something? She’s talking about something else now.”
“WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST SAY SOMETHING???”
“I have to say something, but at this point, how?”
“I don’t want to upset her or make her uncomfortable, but her words upset me and I’m uncomfortable that she used them. Is her comfort more of a priority of my own? Of my son’s and others with developmental and intellectual disabilities? Of their parents?”
“She’s been so nice. Do I really want to call her out on this?”
When she moved to take my blood pressure and there was a brief pause, I said to her as calmly and respectfully as possible, “You know when you said something about people being offended so easily? Well, then you used the word ‘retarded’ and that actually does offend me because my son has Down syndrome.”
As was illustrated for me today, I know that there are people who continue to use the word retarded despite knowing it’s offensive. Much like the n-word. I would say that perhaps they continue to freely speak it because they haven’t heard that it’s offensive and believe it’s still an appropriate adjective to use in describing something, but I just have a really hard time believing that. (Unless they’re like 100-years-old, then maybe. Otherwise, no.)
I also know that there are a lot of people who recognize and agree that using the word ‘retarded’ is offensive and shouldn’t be used. These are the people who have likely erased it from their vocabulary. I would also venture to guess that a lot of these people cringe when they hear someone else say it and do exactly what I’ve done so many times in the past:
Nothing. Keep your mouth shut. Silently congratulate yourself for not using that word.
I get it. Addressing the use of an offensive slur can be hard and uncomfortable no matter if it’s a loved one or a stranger. There’s a chance that you could find yourself on the receiving end of some more offensive language when you’ve done nothing to deserve it. There’s a chance that you could be ridiculed or even ostracized. There’s a chance you could jeopardize a relationship.
However, not addressing it is giving your silent approval. Yes, in some cases, silence can speak volumes in letting someone know you have been wronged. However, in a situation like this, silence is the equivalent of saying,”Hey, you used the r-word and I find that really offensive, and a lot of other people do, too, but it’s okay if you want to keep saying it.”
I have to admit that one of the reasons I was able to speak up today is because I’ve been mentally preparing myself since the last time I didn’t speak up. I’ve literally been practicing different ways to respond in my head for a couple of years now because I refuse to stay silent about it ever again.
How can you prepare yourself for speaking up and calling someone in when they have said or done something offensive?
- Commit to speaking up the very next time it happens.
- Practice some things you could say: “Don’t you think it’s time to find a new word?”; “You know, that’s a really offensive word to a lot of people and I don’t think you’re wanting to offend anyone, right?”; “Using that word makes you sound really insensitive/uneducated.”
- Show a picture of Moses or another person with Down syndrome or intellectual disability and ask, “Would you say that to this person’s face? If not, you might want to consider saying it at all.”
- Have an exit plan. Be ready to say that you’re not comfortable being in a conversation with someone that uses that word and excuse yourself from the conversation.
In the end, you have to just rip the bandaid off and say or do something. A wise person recently reminded me that how the person or people respond to you standing up for an issue is not your concern. You have no control over whether or not she will listen respectfully or fly off the handle. And whatever her response is really isn’t about you, anyway. It’s about her. Her values, her respect of others, her willingness to listen to understand, or a lack thereof.
I have to give the woman today props for her response today. Did she apologize? No, she didn’t. She also didn’t shut down or get defensive. She was a quiet for a moment while she finished taking my blood pressure, and then our conversation resumed. She even asked me if I knew Moses had Down syndrome before he was born, and I was more than happy to answer her question.
As I left there today, I like to think that she’s going to reflect on our conversation today and reconsider her use of the r-word. She might, and she might not. What I know for certain is that I left there today having advocated for my son and others who are not always able to speak up for themselves. And I have to say, refusing to keep my mouth shut feels really, really right.