The power of words

Uncle Bruce, Uncle Jimmy, my mom, Aunt JoAnne & Aunt Dale - venturing a guess and saying this was taken in 1964

Hallie Levine Sklar told her readers at Parents.com that she “cringes” when she hears the word retarded. She’s not the only one.

Prior to reading Hallie’s story, I was unaware that October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. That’s not all that surprising considering that there is no one in my life right now with Down Syndrome. In general, we tend to focus on the awareness days and weeks and months that affect us the most. I’m sure most of you don’t know that the first Monday in May is Melanoma Monday. I do – because it hits home.

The thing is . . . this hits home too. Aside from a few kids in school or a young man I used to chat with at the bus stop, I really haven’t met many people with Down Syndrome. When I taught children with special needs, most of my students were diagnosed with Autism or a Learning Disability.

There is, however, a very special person in my life who had Down Syndrome. I was never fortunate enough to meet her. She’s my aunt. And my namesake.

In 1955, my grandmother was pregnant with her 3rd child. She was 19 years old. During her pregnancy, she read the book “Angel Unaware” by Dale Evans Rogers. The book was about Dale Evans and Roy Roger’s daughter, Robin, who had Down Syndrome. It is an incredible story and I recommend it to everyone.

Hallie wrote of her daughter in her Parents.com post, “Fifty years ago she would have been labeled as ‘mentally retarded’ and my husband and I would have been told to shunt her off to an institution.” That is exactly what Dale Evans and Roy Rogers were told, but they didn’t listen. They kept their beautiful daughter and loved her and cherished her.

My aunt was born on January 18, 1956. She had Down Syndrome.

My grandmother named her Dale, after Dale Evans, of course. I never talked to my grandmother about that time. We talked about Aunt Dale, but I never asked the questions that I would ask now because I had no idea what it was like in the 50’s to have a child with a disability. The idea that even one parent, much less almost all parents, would give up a child because of a disability was completely foreign to me.

My grandmother died when I was 13, so I’ve lost the opportunity to ask her about her experiences.

What I will say is that I have no doubt that she was told to institutionalize my aunt and the fact that she refused to do so (in 1956) fills me with an enormous amount of pride for a woman I already knew was incredibly brave and strong.

My mom did not have the opportunity to really get to know my Aunt Dale either. She was born on January 18, 1962 – my Aunt Dale’s 6th birthday. Four years later, my Aunt Dale died of pneumonia. Still, I grew up hearing all about my her.

Those stories  . . . about how happy she was (I’ve never seen picture of her without a huge smile on her face), about how she lived her entire life as an infant – never learning to walk, talk or feed herself, about how my uncles would take her for walks in her carriage and defend her against the nasty comments from others . . . those stories, and perhaps our shared name, made me feel connected to her all of my life.

She is the reason I went to school to become a special education teacher. She gave me the heart and patience to work with children with special needs. She is one of my many angels.

So no, Hallie is not alone in her disgust with the derogatory use of the word “retarded”. I grew up lecturing everyone I could – not that many of them listened. I argued with classmates . . . other students working towards degrees in Special Education . . . when they would say something was “soooo retarded”. People rolled their eyes at me because they thought I was overreacting. Some would apologize and say they knew it was wrong . . . many would say it again the next day.

I would tell them about my Aunt Dale. I’d tell them how beautiful she was. I’d tell them how their words were an insult to her and every other person with a disability. Some cared, some feigned to care, some didn’t bother.

There’s a larger issue here. It’s an issue of human dignity and respect . . . the ability to step outside of ourselves for just a moment and consider how powerful our words can be . . . the understanding that we have a choice to use our words effectively for a positive purpose instead of a negative one.

13 responses to this post.

  1. Such a great personal message. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  2. This is a great post!
    I think today’s society has gotten so used to hearing the word misused and said as if to be funny when it’s not. I don’t know if you are aware or not, but the Black Eyed Peas hit song, “Let’s get it started” isn’t the original version. They changed it for radio and TV….The actual song is “Let’s get….” I am sure you can feel in the blanks. In the song, they meant it the way many kids nowadays seem to think of it as, which is “Crazy, wild, drunk, stupid”. I agree with your feelings about it and wish people hadn’t done so.
    I have never had anyone in my family with Down’s syndrome but my mom used to help a friend with a Special Ed. Sunday School class years ago and I would sing in it some time so I met some through that and they were all so sweet.
    I have experienced people calling my brother the R word though because of him being Deaf and that always infuriated me.

    It sounds like you were named after a beautiful, happy, inspiring little girl and it’s sad that she wasn’t alive for longer.

    Reply

    • Thank you so much, Sharon!

      There have been times in my life when I wasn’t fond of my name – for no other reason than how many times I’ve been told it was boy’s name or when people have mispronounced it because of the “y” (which my mom thought made it look more feminine). But I’ve always stopped and remembered whom I was named after and then remember why I love my name :-)

      I had no idea about the Black Eyes Peas song. Wow! that’s just so sad to me. At least they changed it, I guess :/

      I just wish people would think more before they speak.

      Reply

  3. People, myself included, just say things without thinking about how they sound or how hurtful they could be to others. I hate to admit that I’ve used the phrase “that’s retarded” before. This post is a great reminder for me that I need to be more aware of what comes out of my mouth. Because I don’t want to say hurtful things.

    Thank you for sharing the story of your namesake and the reminder about the power of words. :)

    Reply

  4. My husband’s brother has cerebral palsy and is mentally retarded – he’s 31 now. It is a very sad situation for everyone, but most of all for him. But we all have learned so much having him around – it is impossible to imagine our lives without him. The perspective gained is invaluable
    And we never use the word retarded lightly. Though I think people who use it in a negative way are doing so because it truly is a scary subject and a scary world and they are just trying to deflect and they are secretly thankful that they have not had to face real mental retardation head-on. Because it is not an easy road at all- hats off, I agree, to your grandmother. Great post!

    Reply

    • Thank you, Anne!

      I just reread this post again . . . and cried thinking about it again. There is so much more to my grandmother’s story. I wish I could talk to her as an adult and learn more about her life.

      But I digress . . . I think a lot of people just don’t think about the words that come out of their mouths. I know I’ve made that mistake myself on a few occasions, but I try. Funny enough, that was one thing my grandmother used to tell me all the time — to think before I speak!

      Reply

  5. Words can be so powerful in good ways and bad, and your post is such an important example and testament to this. I’ve worked and lived with children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism before, so I really relate to your sentiments. In fact, another sensitivity to words that I learned is by putting the disability at the end of the label. “my aunt with Down syndrome” rather than “my Down syndrome aunt” so that the disability isn’t part of who they essentially are and isn’t the primary descriptor. This post means a lot to me, Dayle! Thank you!

    Reply

    • Thank you, Sam!

      People first language was also taught in my special education courses. I admit that I slip up on that on occasion, but for the most part I will say that I worked with children with special needs rather than say I worked with special needs students and so forth.

      Reply

  6. [...] In her Halloween post, she talked about her Samhain traditions and her way of honoring the dead. In The power of words, she expresses why we shouldn’t use the word retarded and speaks about her late aunt who she [...]

    Reply

  7. [...] months ago, I wrote about the power of words and why phrases like, “That’s so retarded!” have always bothered me. I can’t recall any [...]

    Reply

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