Seidman says most people would never say the R-word to a child’s face; however, she believes if you wouldn’t do that, then you shouldn’t use it in any place or situation. She writes in her blog post, “Ultimately, this isn’t just about a word—it’s about respect. It’s about getting people to consider kids and adults with cognitive impairment equal members of society. It’s not about censorship, either; it’s about starting a conversation on how people can better treat Max and others like him.”
In another post, Seidman tells a story of Joseph, a 9-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder, and the amazing thing he did at a Target in Medford. While shopping with his family, Joseph noticed someone had arranged metal letters to spell out the word “Retards” on a shelf. He knew it was a bad word and spoke to his mother to confirm the meaning of the R-word. Joseph’s mom Tracy explained, “It’s a word people use toward people with disabilities or a word people use kind of ignorantly—instead of saying ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’ they choose to use that word and it’s really mean.” As a result, Joseph thought of his brother Max, who has autism, and felt that they needed to change the letters so nobody would see the bad word. Joseph searched the shelf for letters and rearranged them to spell his name “Joe” and the word “Dream.” He didn’t let the negative word affect him and he turned it into something positive, something Tracy says she really wanted Joseph to learn, according to Seidman’s blog post.
‘R-Word’ the Movie
Amanda Lukoff is a filmmaker whose older sister Gabrielle has Down syndrome. Inspired by Gabrielle, Lukoff is creating a film called The R-Word about “how the power of words, and the love between siblings, can inspire a movement.” In an interview, Lukoff recalled a time when she was little and a friend came over to her house to play. When the girl saw Gabrielle she asked to leave, and Lukoff’s dad ended up driving the girl home. This was the first time Lukoff was exposed to other people’s negative reactions to her sister. She remembers that she, along with her and Gabrielle’s other sisters, were confused by the girl’s reaction because Gabrielle was their sister—and no different from other children in their eyes.
“Growing up with Gabrielle made me and my [other] sisters more sensitive to the R-word—we advocated for Gabrielle by standing up to our peers about their use of the R-word,” Lukoff says. As a part of the film, Lukoff and her team created an animated short illustrating her experiences with the R-word and introducing her journey to find “how, when, and why the R-word became a part of pop culture, to discover if the R-word transcends American society, to uncover the lasting effects the R-word has on people with intellectual disabilities, and their friends and families, and ultimately, to try to empower people and communities and encourage everyone to think before they speak.” The film is set to be completed and screened this summer.
No doubt, some people will inevitably come away from any discussion of the R-word unconvinced that it is a big deal. For them, Jonathan Franklin Stephens, a self-advocate with Down syndrome, has a message, which he conveyed in a Huffington Post article he wrote: “To all of you who use it, let me say it one more time, THE R-WORD HURTS. You don’t have to aim the word directly at me to hurt me and millions of others like me who live with an intellectual disability. Every time a person uses the r-word, no matter who it is aimed at, it says to those who hear it that it is okay to use it. That’s how a slur becomes more and more common. That’s how people like me get to hear it over and over, even when you think we aren’t listening.”