(Originally published in the Chicago Sun Times, October 2012)
As an author, I understand and respect the Power of Words. I know how words can both uplift and inspire or wound and destroy.
Recently I was wounded when a well-known commentator called the president of the United States “a retard.” This cruel thoughtless word holds a particularly strong power over me because I am the daughter of a woman who is labeled “retarded from birth”.
When my mother Gwendolyn Buckles was born at home in 1924 or 1925- the date has always been debated- she appeared to be an adorable healthy baby. It is vague at what exact moment our family doctor told my grandparents that baby Gwen was mentally retarded, but for as long as I can remember everyone else simply called her “not right”.
What is neither debated nor vague is my grandparent’s decision at a time when children like my mother were often hidden away or institutionalized. They chose to rear Gwen exactly the way they were rearing her brother and how they would we are all their children: Gwen would have everything, do everything her siblings and cousins enjoy. She would have the normal life they wanted for her.
When my grandparents discovered she was pregnant, male progenitor unknown, they made another decision they chose to allow going to give birth. Also unknown: the possible mental condition of the child, me.
From the time I was five years old I became not only my mother's playmate, but the keeper of her secrets and her protector. I helped make thousands of choices for her which shaped her world and set the course of our lives. I had to choose how to protect her when she heard cruel taunts of “being a retard.” I can still see the confusion in her watery blue eyes and hear her tearful voice asking me, “I ain’t stupid like they say, am, I Sherrill Lynn?” I told her “No, they're the ones who are stupid and cruel and you should never listen to anything they have to say.”
I had to choose how to protect myself when my school friends asked, “Are you a bastard? My mommy and daddy say you are.”
Now the term “bastard” seems archaic, a relic of a less enlightened time. Then why haven't we left their label “retard” behind us?
We have banished derogatory terms for ethnic groups, race, sexual preferences and we censure those who are thoughtless enough to use such words. Yet we haven't banished this cruelest of terms against the developmentally challenged who are helpless to defend themselves.
Long ago, out of my personal experience and love for my mother, I chose to teach my children the power this word has to wound, and through their love for their grandmother, they have spread that truth. Please join us and finally making this cruelest of terms a relic of our past which will surely make a brighter future for all of us.