Retard. Retarded. Libtard. Fill-in-the-blank-tard. ‘Tard.

The word and any derivation of it is painful. It is hate speech. Yet we hear it everywhere. Kids say it. Doctors say it. Politicians say it. Comedians staunchly defend their right to use it. Random strangers at the grocery stores say it. Grandparents say it. Uncles say it. Great friends let it slip now and again. Parents at the school playground say it.

It is a powerful, hurtful word.

When my son was younger, just thinking of him being referred to as retarded got me upset.

Almost 8 years later, and I see it’s so much more than a word. Yes, it would be great to get everyone to stop using the r-word. But the world will just find another word to weaponize. “Intellectual disability” is already used in derogatory ways.

What really needs to be changed is attitude. The belief that the lives of people with disabilities aren’t worth living is still strong.

A great example of this is a conversation had in my home on Christmas Eve when family members brought up their “quadriplegic cousin.”

In this discussion, someone interjected that “back in the day” they let babies born with disabilities starve to death. And looking at this relative’s life – perhaps the cousin should have been left to die from starvation and dehydration because the relative “has not contributed much to this world.”

Sure enough, there are documented cases in the United States as recently as the 1980s where parents and doctors starved babies to death because they did not want to raise a child with a disability.

One of these cases was in Indiana in April 1982. According to the Western Journal of Medicine Baby Doe was born with Down syndrome, a tracheoesophageal fistula, and esophageal atresia. The family physician and pediatrician urged surgical treatment, saying it was likely to be highly successful. But the parents, along with guidance from their obstetrician, decided to let the baby die.

Reporter Jeff Lyon investigated the case and wrote the book, Playing God in the Nursery. He described the baby’s fourth day on this planet, the boy “was crying from hunger, and his lips were parched from dehydration. His ribs were sticking out, the result of respiratory strain caused by [his treatable medical condition]. That afternoon, when the stomach acid started corroding his lungs, he had begun to spit blood.”

Baby Doe died two days later of chemical pneumonia due to the regurgitation of his own stomach acid.

Just let a baby die because it has a disability. As if starving and dehydrating to death isn’t a gruesome way for an infant to go.

I had to entertain family in my home on Christmas Eve who believe that this sort of treatment is OK. While only one person voiced that starving a baby with a disability was a good idea, no one disagreed with her. No one spoke out in shock or disgust. But when another family elder failed to use person first language they all jumped on him as if that was offensive.

Attitude. Words mean NOTHING if your attitude and beliefs don’t back it up.

So I sat there on one of my favorite days of the year in shock. I spoke up calmly but did not want to make a scene because my children were downstairs and we had to see all of these people again the next day on Christmas.

Still, I was beside myself. I have a son with Down syndrome. I have friends who utilize wheelchairs to navigate this world.  One of my friends has a son with a rare disorder which has made him dependent on life support since birth. These are lives worth living. These people are making a difference whether you know it or not.

Starve a baby because it doesn’t fit into your mold of what you deem is worthy.

I would rather hear the r-word on repeat for the rest of my life knowing not much was meant by it than endure another moment in the presence of people who suggest a disability makes someone less than.

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