My oldest brother, Jon, is 41 years old and has Down Syndrome. I’ve never shied away from explaining his condition to strangers. In fact, I am proud of all he’s accomplished in spite of his condition. But when a friend uses “retard” or any variant of the word, I usually just let it roll off my back, even though it stings every time. In doing so, I’ve been a coward. I haven’t mustered the strength to explain gently to my friends the hurtful effects of their language. So, in my final column for the ‘Prince,’ I’ve challenged myself to do just that.
Words and phrases are free of hate in a vacuum. A term becomes insidious when it’s co-opted and perverted to belittle others. Each slur gains its potency from the history of hate that made it toxic. It is counterproductive, then, to liken the R-word to the N-word. People with intellectual disabilities face enduring prejudice but obviously nothing comparable to centuries of enslavement and disenfranchisement.
The R-word is often deployed lightheartedly, free of any malicious intent. Even if a friend drops the R-word as a punchline, I know that he or she isn’t a virulent bigot. The term just isn’t freighted with the same evil history as, say, the N-word. But even unthinking, off-handed remarks can degrade, and a lack of cruel motive is no excuse to let the R-word slide.
A word or phrase’s permissibility should be gauged by those who are allegedly offended by its use. This empowers potentially vulnerable minority groups to determine the point at which an innocent locution mutates into a slur. Here, however, people with intellectual disabilities are at a unique disadvantage: By virtue of their conditions, these men and women sometimes can’t be their own advocates. That’s where mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends like me come in.
It’s a common misconception that having these kinds of conversations necessarily involves judgment or hostility. That’s ridiculous — we all have blind spots. I would hope that my friends would feel comfortable confronting me about any of my insensitivities. But discussions about prejudice — intended or not — are difficult to have, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to do better.
In my experience, when most people casually use the R-word, they aren’t trying to belittle a specific class of people. Rather, these jokes are meant to liken someone or something to a nebulous conception of the inferior. The trouble is, the term still causes pain, and it does dehumanize an entire cohort regardless of the speaker’s intent. It’s up to advocates of the mentally disabled then to humanize the issue, to dispel the illusion of distance between the R-word and those whom it disparages. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to my big brother, Jon.
Every day, he strides confidently and cheerfully into an uncertain world. Jon is at once the happiest and the bravest man I know. For my brother, just leaving home means hoping that every stranger he meets will be kind. And those of us who love Jon wake up every morning praying that a harsh world will spare him any hardships beyond the ones that already burden him.
Despite all this, Jon thrives. My brother lives in semi-independent housing, derives dignity from a job that he enjoys and is unconditionally loved by his family, all of which insulate him from most of the world’s cruelty. What’s more, the D.C. metro, which he traverses with prowess, opens the city up to him.
There is an inherent goodness within Jon that I have yet to encounter in anyone else. He has never been a burden, only a profound blessing. He calls each of my parents daily, and every time is sure to ask, “How is David?” Jon tries his best to keep up with my schoolwork, asking what’s due when, and expresses concern over my seemingly constant fatigue, just like any other devoted big brother.
I aspire to be the kind of loving and faithful brother that Jon is to me. Part of that lifelong pursuit is conveying to others that people with intellectual disabilities — people like my brother — are worthy of respect. So, next time you catch yourself about to utter the R-word, stop for a moment and ask: Does the situation that provoked your reaction really remind you at all of Jon? If not, then take an extra second to find a more accurate and more innocent turn of phrase.
David Will is a religion major from Chevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at email@example.com.