“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Sure… that’s a time-tested maxim, but it’s also kind of a steaming load of crap. This clichéd phrase, probably emblazoned on coffee mugs at your grandma’s house, only serves as a good excuse for complacency. Growth shouldn’t be stunted because you’re feeling stubborn. Heard loud and clear.
As I writer, I am obsessively aware of the weight words can carry. Each time I construct a virtual page of text, I scavenge my brain to come up with the perfect collection of letters to articulate precisely what I mean. There are so many words out there — awe-inspiring ones that evoke snorty laughs or snotty tears. I’m also the daughter of a sailor, with the mouth that can sometimes prove it, so I fully understand that words packing a wallop are important to keep handy in the arsenal. Trust me, I get it… freedom of speech is a badass thing! But, when the choice of words brings hurt to a person unintentionally, you truly understand the actual power they wield.
Until a few years ago, on a regular (hell probably everyday) basis, I used the word “retarded.” (I shudder as I type that out. It’s like a high-pitched dog whistle whenever I hear it, and like a blinding laser shining into my retinas when I see it written. So from here on out, I’ll just call it “the word.”)
I never really thought twice about it. I just said it… a lot.
I’m not a monster, so slurring and slandering a race or minority group isn’t usually on my radar (ex: I would never in a million years dream of using the N word), so why was I hanging on to this one word? It embarrasses me how liberally my everyday conversations were peppered with "the word." I used it to describe virtually anything I deemed dumb or pointless (movies, celebrity scandals…even other words). This is, in no way, an awkward humble brag or a source of pride — just to establish that no one, even someone who considers herself open-minded and possessing a dusty degree in communications, is immune to lazy language.
Oh, and what makes this even more bizarre in the new millennium is that I have a physical disability. I, of all people, should have been disgustingly aware of words laced with daggers, but I just wasn’t.
Personally, I've never cared if someone calls me disabled or frankly even crippled. Life has thickened my skin a great deal and my sticks and stones and personally stubborn mentality led me to think people who got offended by such things were just overly sensitive and focusing on something trivial. Ugh. Admitting that makes me realize I was once such an excuse factory and constantly expected everyone in my life to stay at my level of insensitivity.
Besides, I loved words and didn’t like someone telling me how I should feel about them. I had to basically be slapped in the face to realize a small linguistic purge needed to happen. It wasn’t that I wasn’t “aware," I just didn’t have reason enough to change, yet.
Even though it’s usually not meant to be outwardly malicious to people, when you think about it — you’re using it to denote that something was worthless or a waste of time.
That event took the form of a person named Claire. It’s funny how a singular human can make you view a whole issue through a new lens.
In late October of 2013, ironically enough Down syndrome awareness month, my best friend of over 20 years gave birth to a tiny teacup baby named after a county in Ireland. Oh, and she just happens to have Down syndrome. That is but a piece of her personal patchwork, but unfortunately for her entire sweet life, the possession of that one extra teensy chromosome is how society will identify her most.
Never having had someone in my adult life on a regular basis with an intellectual disability, I initially didn’t know what to do. There’s no formula for that kind of thing. “Surely I will say or do the wrong thing!” The truth is all I could do was love and be mindful.
Even while Claire was in utero, I heard people use the word in my best friend’s presence… even people who were close friends and knew the tears she cried thinking about it. My best friend is also a bartender; she’s no stranger to rough language or political incorrectness. Drunks are real swell at tenuously grasping the English language. However, when the three syllable term pierced the air (to describe everything from a football ruling to the fact that they were out of a certain beer), I could see her wince like someone had physically stepped on her abdomen, and could see the wheels turning, thinking of how that one silly word would color the world her beautiful baby was being brought into.
Each time I hear it in conversation, which thankfully dwindles from year to year, I hate that word more and more and yearn to protect her from it.
Sure, some people say it in a diagnostic sense, as they are not aware that in modern times the term is intellectually disabled, but usually the word is used as a place filler, a synonym for something negative. Even though it’s usually not meant to be outwardly malicious to people, when you think about it — you’re using it to denote that something was worthless or a waste of time. Two things I know that she isn’t.
She is anything but. She is snuggly and sassy and sometimes a pain in the ass, but never have I looked at that tiny lady and thought that word would be a good descriptor. She’s but a toddler, so it’s a little early yet for her to have been personally affected by "the word.” It hasn't had a chance to make her cry on the playground or to make her doubt the incredibly amazing quirk of nature that she is, and I don’t want it to.
Censorship has always been a stream I swam against with every muscle in my body, and I’ve always prided myself on being completely unfiltered, so how do I make sense of erasing a word? I see this new tweak as more of a strainer, because it has only made the final product of my speech more refined. Editing should be a crucial step in all aspects of life, right?
Claire just turned three years old and it has been about that long since I decided never to use that R word again. I’m not perfect, by any imaginable stretch, and put my foot square in my jaw everyday, but that’s a mistake I don’t want to make ever again. You can absolutely teach an old dog, or a writer in her mid 30’s who thinks she knows it all, a new level of tact. Especially if this “trick” is to be a compassionate human who needs to be less lazy with her word choice
Down syndrome awareness month is winding to a close, and it seems like a perfect time to change your vocabulary for the better.
Ditch the word. If you mean something is ridiculous or unwise, use those words. They sound better anyway.
It’s not as hard as you think, just think of Claire. See that sweet face, and finding a BETTER word will be simple.