"I'm just saying, you could do better."
Read this beautiful post yesterday by my friend and fellow blogger Elizabeth and felt my toe crunch. I needed that message. I heard some teenagers and tweens that I know saying that word--"retarded"--repeatedly under my earshot just recently. "OMG, that's so retarded!" and "Dude, stop acting like a retard!" One even mimicked what they thought that looked and sounded like just in case no one was clear on it. I knew them. And all of them, for certain, are great, kind young people. They are. But. They're kids. And to them, it's just simple slang, you know? Sigh.
See, what's worse is, I was totally in a position to say something but I shrunk because the mood was light and I talked myself out of it. Those teenagers all respect me and totally would have listened to me, too. Sure, it bothered me the second I heard it but I didn't say anything. And what's funny--or rather not funny--is had they been dropping f-bombs over and over again instead, I am 100% sure that I would have immediately shut that down. Even though the f-bomb is far less hurtful albeit less socially acceptable.
It was as if she wrote that post for me to read. And then my other friend Angella linked to it just to affirm that YES, I needed that message. To use the word properly, a teachable moment was retarded by my lack of vigilance and resolve to stick to my guns.
Hey. Thanks, Elizabeth, and especially Oliver, for reminding me to refuse to shrink and also to use my influence and power for good. It may seem first world to someone reading this. But I think if any of us still ourselves long enough to feel the sting of whatever word or words hurt us the most, it won't be for long. That's what Elizabeth and Oliver's message has done for me.
Here's a challenge:
Let's all commit to not using "retarded" or "retard" as a slang word. And even more, to speak up and let those who do use it know that it's not cool (just like Oliver does and Zachary did here.) That word is hurtful to many people even if it isn't meant that way. We can right this wrong. I know I'm recommitting myself today to doing better. Who else is in?
Read the post below and make your mark if you want to be down with the movement:
Hey Elizabeth? Next time I vow to say, "F-that."
Because "love" should be a verb and "retard" should never be a noun.
The room was filled with people. Seats all forward and facing the hanging screen that displayed the image from the LCD player. A youngish man stood at the front of the room, white coat starched to perfection, a tie that most certainly had the name of some fancy designer on the back, and shoes that appeared to be spit shined. Even though he lacked the grey hair of the endowed professors, he had the look that holds the attention of medical colleagues. Professionalism personified.
But beyond that, he knew what he was talking about, too. His slides were well done and cited all of the resources for the topic of discussion. For the majority of the presentation he wasn't even looking at the screen at all; he knew his stuff that well. And he was cool. No shaking hands or nervous throat clearing. Just one youngish doctor-dude standing at the front of the room with closely clipped nails gripped around a laser pointer. And this doctor-dude? He knew his stuff.
I, being a person who is enamored by excellent public speakers, felt myself wavering between actually listening to what he was teaching and how he was doing it. The clean slides with the clear diagrams. The cadence of his voice and the way he interacted with the audience. And then there was his chosen topic--an area that happened to be his expertise as well as one that is high yield for all of us. Not only was I learning something, I was enjoying it at the same time.
But then something happened. He turned a slide and things weren't configured as he'd expected. Of course, he was still cool as a fan. After trying to talk through the disjointed words and images any way, finally he stopped and knitted his brow in frustration. Then he said this:
"Sorry about that, guys. I prepared this on a Mac and these PCs can be so retarded when it comes to going between PowerPoint for Mac and Windows."
A few people chuckled in acknowledgment. The talk had been so good up until that point that no one seemed bothered.
"I'll move past that slide," he said with a shrug of his shoulders, "Sorry -- I should have checked compatibility before. I'm such a retard sometimes."
A ripple of gentle chuckles went through the room. And that was that.
The rest of his slides were fine, I guess, because I don't remember much else. Everything after that for me was just white noise.
In 2009, I helped lead a writing workshop with a group of colleagues at the Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM) national meeting. The session was called "Writing and the Art of Medicine: From Personal Reflection to Publication" and included a breakout session where we actually spent time writing narratives. It was really well attended and I remember being pleasantly surprised by the number of people sitting at the round table with me during our breakout.
The task was simple. "I will give you a sheet of paper. You will write -- longhand -- for ten minutes about a pivotal moment or critical incident you've experienced that has taught you, moved you, or simply made you think. We will then share a few of the ones you've written." Straightforward enough, yes?
I recall that there were many beautifully written pieces. Important topics that we all, as physicians and medical students, could feel resonating in our souls. But there is only one narrative that I remember in full detail. Only one. The story was simple, really. It was written by a young woman who was a resident at the time and she'd spent her ten minutes describing two very clear images.
The first was her interactions with her nephew, to whom she appeared to be very, very close. As it turns out, he was born with an additional copy of chromosome #21 which most people recognize when they see. That's because trisomy 21 is the chromosomal abnormality responsible for Down Syndrome. Yes. Her nephew had some developmental delays and some mild to moderate mental retardation. But that's not what she described. Instead she painted a picture for us of him running recklessly on the front lawn chasing bubbles. Of him tackling her and covering her with his sloppy kisses. And of how much he loved classical music. So much so that whenever he heard it, he'd stop, close his eyes, and wave his fingers like a maestro.
Then she went to another scenario. Her in the hospital working on a ward team. The lab system had gone down for the day and her resident declared the system "retarded." Her co-intern had left his stethoscope on another floor and dubbed himself "a retard" for doing so. And the list went on. According to her, it had become the slang word of the month for that team. Anything imperfect or dysfunctional was referred to as "retarded." And the funny medical student with his perfect comic timing? He was "such a retard." But in the nicest, most endearing way, of course.
So she read her words in her quiet voice and I swear to you that you could have heard a pin drop. And at the end she simply told us that she never got around to saying how much that word stung each time she heard it from their mouths. How awful it made her feel to know that her nephew's life would be just a little bit harder because of that word. I never, ever forgot that.
I will admit that before that fateful moment in 2009, I'd never really "heard" that word. Surely I'd heard it at some point, but it had never created a nails-on-chalkboard effect for me or a visceral response in me either. But her words? They opened my eyes to something that I'd never thought about. An aspect of "the other side" that our patients and their families and their friends experience that even the ones that are supposed to be allies have completely overlooked.
So that man with his perfect PowerPoint presentation and his spectacularly white coat should have been an ally. But he hadn't heard that word either. And from the response he got from everyone in the room, it was business as usual. Which tells me that the majority sitting under his voice hadn't really learned to "hear" the word "retard" like that young resident writer had taught our breakout group to hear it that day.
|(photo courtesy of Elizabeth Aquino)|
My friend Elizabeth recently posted a photograph of her son, Oliver, speaking at "No Name-Calling Week" in 2010 at his school. I have posted that image above because seeing his young face holding that sign immediately brought me to tears. Just look at him. So brave. . .with that microphone in his face educating what was probably the entire student body. His sister, Sophie, has some special needs and also a severe form of epilepsy. But just like that sweet boy who was chasing bubbles, conducting music with this two index fingers, and freely giving out juicy kisses, there is more to Sophie than her disabilities. So, so much more.
See? Oliver knows that for sure. He lives it and breathes it. So he held that sign and shared his testimony because, for him and Sophie and his brother and his mother and every person who knows and loves Sophie, those words hit like a fist. I am thankful for him and for that picture because now, it hits like a fist for me, too.
Maybe from now on, it will for you, too.
I would make this a jumping point to reference that woman Ann Coulter who sent that tweet during the last presidential debate. You know -- the one that commended Governor Romney for going easy on "the retard." Or being polite or whatever the hell she said. Yeah. I would start unpacking about all of that, but some part of me wants to believe that perhaps she had not yet "heard" this word either.
That or I just don't have the energy to waste on that.
After that lecture, I pulled that colleague aside. I told him about the little boy with the bubbles and paid that story forward on behalf of his aunt. Even though I didn't know Elizabeth and her family back then, I suppose I paid it forward for them, too. In my least judging voice, I shared how that story had opened my eyes. I told him how much I had enjoyed his talk but that his use of the word "retarded" and then "retard" was hurtful and probably not the very best choice.
And you know what? That highly professional physician speaker put his hand on his chest and apologized. He didn't even realize that he'd said that word. And especially felt mortified that he'd said it not once but twice. And I said, "I totally understand because I hadn't really heard that word like that either but now that I do, it hurts to hear." He got it and thanked me. And I thanked him right back for being so understanding.
Today, I say thank you to that young woman whose first name -- Thalia -- I still remember. I have no idea where she is, but she changed me that day. I also say thank you to Oliver and Elizabeth, too. I am grateful to them for helping me to see that if we are going to commit ourselves to making love a verb, then retard should never be a noun.
Or a joke.
From here forward, I hope you'll hear that word differently, too.
That's all I've got for today.
Happy Tuesday. (Originally posted on 10/30/2012)
Well. Google is an amazing thing, y'all. I found a piece of Thalia's writing from an essay contest she won as a medical student in 2003. Read it here. It also turns out that Google can also help you find out where someone is now. This remarkable young woman is now a clinician educator on the Internal Medicine faculty at one of the Harvard hospitals. No surprise to hear that! I hope she's still telling that story. . .