I'm getting this in just under the wire...
Today is Spread the Word to End the Word Day, developed by the Special Olympics organization to bring attention to the demeaning use of the word "retard" or "retarded". Amy Julia Becker has a lovely piece on her experiences with her daughter, Penny, who has Down syndrome. As I read her essay, I realized I've never used the word. Never? Hmm. So I thought some more....and I remembered Tommy.
Tommy was Annie's brother. Annie was one of my college roommates. Annie was smart, driven, athletic and ready to fight for her place in the world. Tommy was her older brother, and he couldn't really talk very clearly. I don't know what Tommy's diagnosis was; I do know that at 23, he was not capable of living independently, and that part of the reason Annie was so driven was that she knew she'd have to take care of Tommy - at least financially - after her parents died.
Annie was an engineer and a runner and a horseback rider and a musician, and when we were juniors I manged to convince her that she had time to play clarinet for a musical I was stage-managing - The Me Nobody Knows. Somewhere in that play there's a scene set on a playground, with two boys ragging on each other until one calls the other "retarded", and everyone starts to laugh. Annie wasn't laughing. The first time we ran that scene, she got up and walked out because she couldn't hide her tears. It took some doing, but we eventually convinced the director to change the line.
I don't think I used the word much even before that - it's not my style - and I certainly didn't use it after that. I've survived over 30 years without those words in my vocabulary, so it can be done, and it's worth it. For Tommy, wherever he is now. For Penny. For Max. For ourselves.