Friday, March 9, 2012

The end of the word.


For as long as I can remember the word has triggered an involuntary reaction.  My jaw clenches and my head snaps back just a little, and for years I’ve held my tongue and carried on as if nothing had been said.  Even recently, when the single six-letter word is tossed about almost in fun, mindless and thoughtless, and I’m certain that the people who say it aren’t even aware of the reaction it brings, I cringe.

Kimberly Ann (Kimmie)
I grew up on the east side of Madison across the street from a beautiful little girl.  Kimmie was the sort of person who saw only the good in life.  She smiled and hugged almost everyone she met and she taught me, her babysitter and friend, important life lessons.  This fair-haired spark plug, no matter what happened, always saw the bright side of any situation, any encounter.  If she knew I was sad, she made me laugh.  If I had a problem to figure out, she sat down next to me and wanted to help.  And I learned over time that if she could be cheerful always, I needed to rethink the things that were bogging me down.   

Back in the 1970s some people defined Kimmie by something none of us could see—an extra chromosome.  And while it is true that she faced a torrent of challenges that would crush the spirit of many kids, nearly everyone who got to know her and especially those who loved her, understood that her chromosomal difference was but a tiny part of an extraordinary package; a bubbly, enthusiastic, energy-filled, charmer.

 Kimmie became a beautiful young woman, cherished by her family and friends and touching us all in ways that can be hard to describe.  She left our world too soon, before I mastered the life lesson that came so naturally to her.  Still, there are days when it’s her memory that reminds me that my own life is really very good.

Back then people labeled Kimmie and others like her “mentally retarded.”  Over the years, that term has fallen out of favor and we are now asked to use the more polite term “intellectual disability”—but, honestly, neither seems right. 

None of you can be defined by just a couple of words, nor can any of your friends and family be described with a single word or phrase.  Some are smarter, some prettier, some weigh more, some have different colored skin, sexual preferences, lots of money, speak different languages, are good at math, have different body parts, wear different clothing, worship different gods or no god at all, belong to one political party or another, have lived a long life or are just beginning a new one.  The number of potential combinations is limitless and the very idea that anyone would label a human being based on a single attribute has always seemed … pointless.

So when a one-word label is used as a pejorative carelessly or, worse, deliberately—and for those who have not guessed I’m referring to the R-word here—I cringe.  But as a 54-year-old woman I can no longer stifle my response.  Now a caring adult and concerned world citizen, I’m obligated to stop what I’m doing and let those who give voice to the word know how I feel.  It hurts.  It hurts people like Kimmie who can't be marginalized, and it hurts me and countless others who have been touched by people like her.  And the language of intolerance, intentional or not, hurts us all.

There is a movement called “Spread the Word to End the Word” and March 7 was this year’s annual day of awareness to end the use of the R-word.  But one day and one word can’t possibly be enough, can it?   What other words should we banish from our language?

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