Thursday, October 25, 2012

The R-word

Ann Coulter has been a hot topic in the Down syndrome community for the past few days. If you haven't heard about it, Ms. Coulter, in her typical confrontational and abrasive manner used the
r-word in reference to President Obama in a recent tweet. Outrageous!

The r-word, once used to describe the delays that intellectually disabled individuals experience, has become a derogatory term in contemporary American usage. As languages evolve, so do the meanings of words. Let me illustrate this point with another controversial English word: gay.

Once upon a time it meant happy. Then it's meaning changed, becoming a synonym for homosexual. The homosexual community's acceptance of the term helped to diminish any intended insults through its use. And then, somewhere in the 1990's it's meaning changed again. Teenagers aggressively adopted the word and used it to mean "stupid." I still hear it used by some of my students today, and expressly forbid its use in my classroom.

The r-word is also banned. I include the following statement in my expectations sheet that every student receives on the first day of class:

Be considerate and respectful of the rights and feelings of others.... Most importantly, this includes refraining from using language that is offensive to others. Language that is considered racially, culturally, intellectually, sexually, or socially inappropriate will not be tolerated.
I add to that the explanation that no one knows the life circumstances of the people around them. A simple, seemingly innocent statement could be very offensive to people nearby. Then I show them a picture of my son--it typically elicits several "aaaaaaaw's" from the girls in the room--and ask them, "Did you know my son has Down syndrome?" "He does?" they say. I continue, "He does, and imagine how I would feel if you used the r-word in class to call someone else 'stupid?'"

I rarely hear any derogatory words in my classroom. Most people, even teenagers, want to be respectful.

So why doesn't Ann Coulter want to be respectful?  I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt that somewhere, deep inside, she doesn't really mean to offend the thousands of us in this country who have, or have loved ones with Down syndrome. Has her television persona become so fused with her true self that she is no longer able to see those lines she ought not to cross?

Shame on you, Ms. Coulter. The character you play thinks nothing of the feelings of others. Could that, perhaps, be your true character after all? How can you hold any of the people you criticize to high standards when you yourself do not reach them, or appear to even attempt to do so? Perhaps your public persona will not permit you to apologize for your missteps, but I hope that you learn to understand that what you say can hurt others so much more than you will ever know. There are quite a few people out there who look up to you. You should be a good model for them.


  1. I wrote a really long comment here and it got erased by accident, so I will just sum up by saying that this is a great post! Thank you for sharing. Everyone deserves the dignity of being called by their proper names.

    1. Isn't technology annoying sometimes? And, yes, they do. I'm happy that you agree. Disenfranchised groups are considered less important. Members of such groups are identified by their labels, not as individuals. It's simply a matter of respect.

      Thanks for your support.

  2. This is a Wonderful!! essay Amy. It's excellent. I plan to repost it. I love Max!

  3. Thanks for sharing. Very thought-provoking!