It was the spring of 2007, Sydney was 15 months old at the time, when the word Retarded first crossed my mind. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the floor in the corner of my office and frantically Googling all of Sydney’s symptoms to determine whether the R word would pertain to her. I had been doing this on and off since she was 6 weeks old. On this particular day, I sat in front of that computer for hours when I finally ran out of things to Google. I still had no answers to explain her delays and I had basically hit a wall. I remember feeling exhausted and defeated. I sat there feeling confused. I thought how in the world was it possible for one child to have so many little things wrong with her yet no one, not even Google, had any answers. Then it dawned on me, maybe the explanation for all of her delays, all of her quirky behaviors, and all of her missed milestones is mental retardation.
I know what you are all thinking. How politically incorrect and horrible of me to think such a thing. However, mental retardation is a real diagnosis. It is not just what we say when we want to make fun of someone, or belittle someone. It is actually a legitimate medical term used to describe a delay in growth. The word retarded simply means a lack of development. On that spring day in my office the realization hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, all the pieces of this puzzle began to come together. In that instant I realized I already knew what was wrong with my daughter and suddenly that word, retarded, took on a whole new meaning.
When I was a kid the word retard rolled off my tongue like any other word. I used it in numerous situations never giving a second thought as to what it actually meant. I called myself retarded for doing my homework wrong. I called my friends retarded for acting silly or crazy. It was such a perfect word to describe unusual situations. The reality was that I never used the word correctly. My growth and development was never delayed and my friends and I were fortunate enough to never have our brains deprived of oxygen or have any vital pieces missing from our DNA. We were not retarded in any way; we were simply being weird, careless, ridiculous, insensitive, or downright thoughtless, but not retarded.
Several months later I learned of my daughter’s diagnosis of SMS and received confirmation that she was, in fact, mentally retarded. Although I already knew that her brain had suffered some significant delays in development it was still hard to hear with certainty. A word I so carelessly threw around as a child and even as a young adult would now haunt me for the rest of my life. I no longer find any humor in it and it stings every time I hear it. Shame on me for needing a life-changing event to appreciate how hurtful this word can be for families who struggle with this everyday. Shame on me for being so unaware of its true meaning and shame on me for not realizing how truly devastating mental retardation really is when it is more than just a word.
I have learned much since the spring of 2007 and I will share some of that with you. Mental retardation is a life sentenced to a world filled with special accommodations, limited possibilities, assisted living, and missed opportunities. Being retarded is not funny; in fact it is really hard work. Individuals who suffer from this actually work 100 times harder than those who don’t to accomplish the same thing. An individual with mental retardation never gives up and they never give in. They have an unwavering determination to feel accomplished. They love unconditionally and never judge anyone for their shortcomings. They find no joy in belittling others and only recognize the beauty in them.
I am tired of hearing this word in jest and I am sad to think of my daughter as something to make fun of. I can’t change the past or make up for all the times I probably hurt someone by using it but what I can do going forward is try to help others understand what I learned the hard way, that being retarded is no laughing matter.