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Article of Interest - Person First Language

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Some Words Hurt More Than Others
Sally Nantais, November 6, 2005, The News-Herald
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What’s the hardest part about being the parent of a child who is different?

It’s the continuous struggle to teach people to look past the differences and to recognize the child as a child first and foremost.

That’s not an easy task considering the attachment society has with assigning labels to people and places.

My son, who has fragile X syndrome and autism, has been referred to using many labels; autistic, handicapped and mentally retarded to name just a few. The more I hear these references the more I hate them.

Why? Because they focus on what is different. Those who use them forget he is only a child who has feelings and emotions. They choose not to realize this is a child who understands more than what others believe he can comprehend.

He is not autistic; he is a child who has autism. He is not handicapped; he is a child who has different abilities. He is not mentally retarded; he is a child who learns differently and slower than others do.

For me, the worst and most degrading of the three labels is “mentally retarded” because of the slang word “retard” that is often associated with it.

Take a walk in my shoes. How would you feel?

A mom told me her child looked “retarded” in his school picture. I kindly asked if she meant he looked like my son.

Although, the word has been banned in my daughters’ school, I still hear children call each other “retard” in the halls.

At the beach one day, a child asked his friend, in a very negative tone, “Is he retarded or something?”

On many occasions, I’ve heard adults, who should know better, say something to the effect as “What are you retarded?”

I became agitated driving one day when members of a local charity organization were out collecting donations and their vests read “Help Retarded Children”. As far as I was concerned, they might as well read “Help Retards.”

At yet another outing with my daughters, we were subjected to the sound of one child again calling another child “retard” as a means of insult.

“Retard”, and any form of the word, in my family is known as the “R” word. For me, it’s as derogatory as any racial or ethnic slur, all of which will never be spoken in our house. They are forever banned.

In our community, if I had one wish, it would be that the word “retard” and all its deviations banned.

Children will grow up to exhibit the lessons taught to them by their parents. So teach your children well and please don’t focus on the diagnosis or what is different about someone.

Focus on the unique individual behind the diagnosis.

If you’d like to learn about, “People First Language: Communicating with and about People with Disabilities” visit

Some may think I’m overly sensitive but when I hear or see the “R” word it not only hurts me, it hurts my children too.

In the end, I can only hope that Austin will never ask with a tearful eye, “Mom, am I a retard?”

That would break my heart, and if you walked in my shoes, I think it would break yours as well.


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