We knew this day would happen, the day someone would call one of my kids the r-word.
The r-word is hate-speech towards people with disabilities. The disability community is vocal about the use of the word and why it is harmful and violent towards their community. This is not about being “politically correct.” This is about treating people with disabilities with dignity and respect, and abstaining from using a word that has hurt them, ridiculed them, and marginalized them.
(As a side note, the r-word is a despicable word no matter who says it or who it is said to).
Something I’ve done with my kids is walk through “likely” scenarios relating to their disability. My 11-year-old has cerebral palsy and she is especially aware of her disability and differences. She is also aware that people — including her classmates — sometimes treat her differently, using a baby voice, for example (which is ableism).
For this reason, we have practiced possible responses to different situations. I believe having a “script” can help my kids feel more confident when confronted with ignorant comments or questions. If anything, the fact we have talked about these possibilities and rehearsed ways to respond, will hopefully make them feel a little bit “prepared.”
Unfortunately, no amount of rehearsing takes away the hurt and pain words can inflict.
I have also told my kids if they stand up for themselves or one of their siblings or friends as a result of hate-speech, they will not be in trouble.
And right before school let out for the summer, one of my daughter’s classmates called her the r-word.
“You can’t do anything, you are r*t*rded.”
“Well, you are stupid.”
The kid ran to one of the paraprofessionals and accused my daughter of calling him “stupid.” When my daughter explained he had called her the r-word, her response was, “We don’t call anyone names, please apologize.”
My daughter insisted, “My mom said if someone calls me the r-word I can defend myself, even if all I say back is ‘stupid’ and she said I will not get in trouble.”
The paraprofessional did not listen to my daughter. She was not aware or receptive of my daughter’s words or sensitive to her emotions. All the teacher cared about was to make sure my daughter apologized to her classmate.
Hate-speech equaled to the word “stupid.” As if both words carried the same meaning.
As soon as I knew about this incident my heart broke for my daughter. I felt angry and sad and my heart broke. I assured her I would be talking to the principal about it. And I said she could “take back” her apology.
We have talked about her options: she can walk away, she can try to give a “rehearsed” answer, or if she feels brave but words fail her and she says something like “stupid.” This is an exception where it is OK to call someone a name. As we talked about what happened, she said she felt “Like I was nothing, and my brain was telling me I was the r-word.”
Saying “stupid” It was the only thing she could get out. And I commend her, because she felt brave enough to stand up for herself.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up and say something — anything — to regain some dignity after being attacked with hate-speech.
The principal agreed it was a situation that needed to be addressed with the boy and the paraprofessional. My daughter felt the para also needed to apologize to her for failing to listen to her explanation, and for failing to recognize what had taken place. My daughter felt “like nothing” and the paraprofessional explained to her why “stupid” is wrong. Did she explain to the boy why the r-word is hate-speech? I doubt she is aware of the seriousness of what took place.
This was the first time my daughter was verbally attacked because of her disability. It was an attack on who she is, part of her identity.
No, the r-word is not the same as “stupid.”
On the last day of school the paraprofessional “apologized,” and I wonder if it was because the principal asked her to, but she followed her apology with a, “why we should never call people ‘stupid,’ and she has a cousin with a disability so she knows what she is talking about.”
What kind of apology is that? Clearly, she did not understand. And I wonder what the conversation was like with the principal, who asked me she be the one to address the situation. That was my mistake.
My daughter came home on the last day of school discouraged because an adult — someone who is supposed to not allow these types of aggression to happen, someone who is supposed to be on her side and understand the seriousness of what took place — tried to make her feel ashamed for standing up for herself because of the word “stupid.”.
We know this will not be the last time someone calls her the r-word, unfortunately. We know saying “you are stupid” back can get you in trouble with educators who are ignorant about disability attitudes and fail to recognize hate-speech and the emotional damage it has on the person it is said against.
My daughter was made to feel “like I as nothing.”
I am not OK with that. My heart breaks because she is brave, and strong, and beautiful, and kind, and funny.
We will keep preparing to the best of our ability, and we will keep fighting the r-word.
And as her mother, I will do my best to build up what hateful words threaten to tear down.
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