The Power of Words


I learned English as a second language. When I moved to the United States at age 17, I felt confident living life in "English." However, my scholarly English did not know much about slang words, puns, or the fact that the English language is ever changing. Some words, over time, change their meaning.

One word that has changed in meaning over time, is the R-word (retarded.)

Back in February, when there was controversy going on with this word, I wrote a post about how our family feels about this word.


Some have said we have pushed the limit in what is “politically correct.” But is it? Is it wrong or offensive to use the r-word? Is it really a damaging word?

I want to tell you about our family. I hope after you read this, that you will understand the power of words, and that some words, even when not intended to be harmful, can slowly destroy.

When my daughter Nichole was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome hung over me like a heavy, wet, blanket. It clung to me. It robbed me from any feelings of love and I wondered if there was a way out. My motherly instinct was nowhere to be found. I went through the motions of holding and nursing (pumping actually) because I had to, not because I wanted to. I cried. I cried several times a day. There was fear in the unknown; there were questions about the future, about our family and my oldest daughter.

Down syndrome. I knew many things about Down syndrome, and I knew of one word that would be used to describe my daughter. It was the R-word. Retarded.

I knew that someday, someone at her school might say to her, “Hey you retard!” With many laughs to follow such a comment. Or we might hear someone explaining her behaviors to another by saying, “She is retarded.”

There was something I knew about the word retard or retarded. It is a word used to describe something or someone that is stupid, ridiculous, or inadequate. It is a word used to make fun of others, to point out their flaws, or to put them down. It is a word used to destroy, to tear down. Was this really a word that would describe my daughter? Was it okay to call her that in claims of it being a "medical" term or condition?

Thankfully, it did not take long for me to discover that my daughter was not what the word "retarded" means. My daughter was and is beautiful. She is not stupid, she is not ridiculous, and she is not inadequate. She has taught me more in her lifetime than I had learned in mine. She has been the greatest teacher I have had. She has inspired me more than anyone else I know. She has changed my life, the lives of our family, and of those that have gotten to know her.

My daughter has the ability to touch hearts and change lives. A quality that cannot be said of all people. She has shown me more love, joy, kindness, gentleness than I had ever known before. Indeed, her life has great meaning, great value, and she has so much more to offer.

And yet, the word “retard” continues to hang over us. Why? Because it is a word that continues to be used in a derogatory way. It hurts. It hurts our family. We fight this word, every day, every single day. We fight this word because everywhere we go, her characteristic features of Down syndrome set her apart. The stereotype that the word “retard” has perpetuated is engrained in our society, and so we fight against it, because she is so much more. She is full of potential, love, and joy.

There are obvious ways in which the r-word is offensive. But when it damages us the most is when it is said in ignorance. The facebook status or the teasing of a friend. It is not meant to be offensive, it is not meant to hurt. But even if it is not said with ill intent, it does. It hurts, it destroys.

My daughter is not stupid, ridiculous or inadequate. A word that has been used to mock people with intellectual disabilities makes othesr like my daughter wake up and face a world that has deemed her unworthy and incapable. Incapable because of a word. A word that is not who she is. She is capable, she has gifts, she has talents.

So next time you hear the R-word, next time if you think you might be about to say the R-word. Please stop and think. Think about my daughter, think about others that like her stand strong against the tide of a word that has labeled them in such a negative way, yet they have so much potential. As her family we stand with her, we stand strong, we fight.

Will you stand with us?


Usually, when someone uses the R-word, I take the time to share with people about our family, and what it means to us to hear people using it in such a way. Most do not know how hurtful it is. Some, do not know how to respond, but understand. And just a few, will dare defend themselves claiming that "educated people" use this word, because it is a medical term and some people act in ways similar to those with intellectual disabilities.

I am an educated person. I have a degree in Psychology. Most important, I am involved in the world of special needs. Every. Single. Day.

So allow me to share with you some recent news. A new law has passed where the term mental retardation will no longer be used in the medical or professional community. It has been removed, as the word has evolved and is now used in a derogatory way. The preferred terminology is now "intellectual disability."

You can click here and read the law passed by Congress.

For now, I am thankful that no official documentation will ever have the R-word when referring to Nichole. She is not a retard, not to what this word has come to mean. She is not stupid, ridiculous, or inadequate. She is simply Nichole, a little girl, with many many gifts, talents, and abilities. Some of which, have changed my life.