Talk about teachable moments.  No matter what our political persuasion, to think of a grown-up White House staffer referring to his fellow travelers as "F***ing retarded" should hit a nerve.

And if it doesn't, or if it's only the F-word and not the R-word that gives you the heebie-jeebies, we need to have a serious talk.

If you haven't realized that the R-word ranks right up there with the N-word in the no-no-not-evers for your children, then let me bring you up-to-speed.

Retard -- and the epithet retarded -- are destructive, hurtful, and damaging words.  But unlike other such words, each time they are used - even playfully, they hurt hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Take Jonny, for instance -- my 17-year-old son with Down syndrome.  All his life, Jonny has had to work extra hard to learn the things that come easily to others.  With a sister just a year younger, he was blessed to spend his early years with someone like a twin, learning to walk and run and swim at the same time.  But this year Maddy will earn her driver's license and while Jonny will be thrilled to ride shotgun, he will probably never be able to take the wheel.

Does that make Jonny less of a person than Maddy? 

I guess it all depends on your point of view.  You see, one of the things we've learned from having Jonny in our family -- he's one of 12 children -- is that there was so much more to life than we ever could have learned without him.  In fact, Maddy summed it up pretty well in her American Idol audition in Boston last June.

Is Jonny retarded?  Yes, according to the traditional educational/medical/psychological definition of the word -- a word that is becoming obsolete, perhaps because of these hurtful conotations.  Today's parents and professionals who work with kids like Jonny usually opt for the term "developmentally-delayed."

But no matter what the label, a word or two could never define a person or God's purpose for that person's life.  From the minute Jonny was born, we trusted in that purpose and our trust has proven well-founded.

Jonny's teacher Ms. Bessie, after 30-plus years of teaching, said she'd never seen children as loving and caring as Jonny's classmates. The secret, she said, was Jonny. When he graduated from her class, she wrote us: "As the Bible says, ‘The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.' Jonny certainly taught the children and me to look at the heart; for he has a very big heart!"

While I am frequently in the position of advocating for Jonny, he is his own greatest advocate, and he is blessed to have many friends.  We live in a time and place where kids in public schools don't develop the same prejudice their parents did because kids like Jonny were warehoused in trailers behind the school, or the same fears their grandparents developed growing up in an era where most Jonnys were confined to institutions.

How far we've come!  And how blessed we are to live in a country founded on principles which impel us to strive for a higher moral ground, uprooting prejudice wherever it is found.

And yet, there is this final nagging reminder of the past - the R-word as epithet. And while Jonny might be surrounded by peers who love him and would never think to target him, he hears it daily in the hallways of his school as classmates say, "Oh, you're so retarded!"  or "He's a retard!" oblivious to the harm this does to people like Jonny.

When the R-word is used as a put down, it negates the progress made individually and collectively by those within the disability community.  It encourages prejudice and non-acceptance towards those in our midst who most need our help and protection. 

In October 2008 Dreamworks released the movie Tropic Thunder, with the tagline "Once upon a time there was a retard" -- as well as a new catchphrase/Tshirt slogan: Never go full retard...

The outcry from families with children like Jonny -- and from those sensitive enough to "get it" -- was huge, but Dreamworks never backed down.

But as God uses all things for good, Special Olympics -- which since 1962 has worked to improve the dignity and self-worth of people with developmental disabilities -- began a grassroots campaign urging people to "Change the conversation . . . stop using the r-word."

As I write this (2/4 3:30 pm) , 55, 452 people have taken the pledge to not only not use the word retard, but to educate others.  As you read this at Crosswalk, there will be many more who've pledged their support because Rahm Emanuel made a mistake and God is using it for good.

Words mean things -- they can build or break, free or fetter, bring reconciliation or ruin.  But since our words reflect what is actually in our hearts, in cases like this it is not enough to teach your children certain words are off-limits. 

Instead, help them open their hearts to individuals of all ability levels.  Teach them the most important R-word: Respect. Get a glimpse of some of the faces of those who deserve this respect below:

Thank God for teachable moments!

February 4, 2010

Barbara Curtis is a certified AMI Montessori teacher, mother of 12, author and blogger at www.MommyLife.net.