An open letter from a pissed dad

This is Maine and it is a regional quirk that “retarded” is used so commonly and off-handedly as a descriptor. (New Englanders may be surprised that it’s far less common and much more taboo in other parts of the country!). Here, it’s not just a slur or an insult that means “dumb”, but a go-to adjective for anything slightly objectionable or disagreeable. Inanimate objects are retarded as are minor differences in opinions of taste or things that could have gone better. I approach my wish that people pick a different word in the same way I wish for world peace. It sure would be nice, but it’s never going to happen. (“Retard” is different. It is awful and hurtful and pretty rare even up here.)

My ambivalence about “retarded” comes from the fact that it means something specific. While it has picked up these additional, negative meanings, it is first a value-neutral term for having a low(er) IQ or having some degree of intellectual disability or delay. It refers to a trait (whereas retard takes that trait and uses it as a smear against the whole person). If used correctly “retarded” is a statement of fact!

Words like “idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile” and “cretin” were also highly specific (and scientific) classifications of people with diminished mental capacity that are now used exclusively as insults impugning someone’s intelligence.  I’m guessing its rare anyone ever takes offense after hearing something described as “idiotic” because their son is an actual “idiot” – it’s just too archaic (Fun fact: Cretin is derived from the word Christian, which in the late 18th century was more or less the same as calling someone human, and meant to remind people that disabled people are still human and entitled to dignity and decency.).

All I mean is that I am used to people slipping and blurting out “retarded” up here. It happens. Alot. I wish it didn’t, but it does. What was incredibly galling (and novel for me) was being in a work meeting and hear someone use  “Down’s Syndrome” as a slur. (The person asked those around the table to rank an absent colleague’s’ ability and usefulness on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being “Down Syndrome.”)

I think it needs to be made clear that “Down’s Syndrome” is not a synonym for “retard.” Down’s Syndrome is the expression of a genetic anomaly known as Trisome-21. This expression exists along a spectrum: people can be a little “Downsey” or a lot “Downsey.” And it is expressed differently in different individuals for many reason that can all be summed up by pointing out that people are more than one thing.

Yes, people with Down’s syndrome tend to be less intelligent than their typical peer. Guess what? A lot of people tend to be less intelligent than their typical peer. There are people with Down’s syndrome who are severely retarded and others, not so much. There are people with DS and a driver’s license.

This may be the time to point out the abortion rate of fetuses’ found to have Down’s syndrome may be as high as 90 percent in some parts of the country (guess which parts? Hint, hint, not the ones where the population is more conservative and religious as well as less educated and affluent –  so we have a situation where a minority of children conceived with DS are carried to term, and the ones that are, are insanely unlikely to find themselves in the arms of parents with the most access to tools and resources to help them reach their potential*). Is this a population that needs to be further devalued and dehumanized?

Of course the real tragedy is that it’s unwarranted. Down Syndrome has a very strong tendency to express wonderful traits. Whatever challenges it presents are more than outweighed by the fact that they tend to be extraordinarily decent human beings. People tend to love their Down Syndrome children, not in spite of their characteristics, but because of them. It is part of who they are and the whole is pretty amazing.

I think my son is the best little boy in the world. Period. There is no qualification. He is perfect. To use Down’s syndrome as an insult is nothing more than a demonstration of ignorance or a blot on the soul of anyone who would do so. In the particular case that inspired this rant, I am still unsure which it is.

There are many traits that make up Down Syndrome and they express themselves in different ways to different degrees in each person, who all grow up in unique situations in different environments and interact with the world in different ways, or at least the minority of those who are given the chance to grow at all. They tend to not be as smart or dexterous as the next guy, but they also tend to be more loving and good-natured and happy.

They also tend to have an above average chance of developing schizophrenia and it has emerged that those who live long enough are virtually assured of developing Alzheimer’s.

So if you think, “Hey – what’s with people with down’s syndrome? They sure are dumb!” is pretty fucking hilarious, think about this father of a six-year-old boy who is precious and perfect and awesome and try not to think that all of it might be fleeting.


* The parents of Down Syndrome children I’ve met are very resourceful, often well-educated and sometimes quite liberal and affluent. I’m not saying all parents of DS children are conservative, poor and ignorant (or that any of these things make the parents bad people), just that studies seem to indicate that the termination of DS pregnancies is more common where liberal reproductive rights and affluence are most common.

** I should also point out that my wife and I were never faced with this choice – we adopted and got to see a picture of our handsome little boy BEFORE deciding to have anything to do with him – but that’s a different story, one I call “Grace at first sight.” I believe people ought to have this choice and cannot bring myself to begrudge any individual who makes it (and would rather not know if they have!). I just wish fewer individuals would.

1 thought on “An open letter from a pissed dad

  1. Wow! What an awesome story and I thank you for sharing it. My son has an 8 year old with down syndrome and autisim. He takes such offense when someone uses the “r” word and I never fully understood his aggravation. I don’t associate the “r” word with my grandson at all. They are two separate worlds but your article gives me a new and “corrected” perspective and I really appreciate it.

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