The R-Word, My Kryptonite

Since I can remember, the word ‘Retard’ has been what a good friend of mine has aptly dubbed ‘My Kryptonite.’ Over the last 24 years...


Since I can remember, the word ‘Retard’ has been what a good friend of mine aptly dubbed, ‘My Kryptonite.’ Over the last 24 years of my life it has been the source of many my most heated exchanges, both physical and verbal.

I was seven years old when my brother John was born. John was born with Down syndrome. Johno, as we call him, is about the finest human I know. He is absolutely loyal, perpetually optimistic and has never held a negative reservation.

I’m not sure what my stance was on using such an ugly word before John came into my life. Fact is, I was seven and I can’t imagine it came up much between riding Big Wheels and throwing rocks.

As a grown man however, there is no mistaking my opposition to the word ‘Retard’ and it’s place in any conversation.

Sadly, at some point, a word once used professionally to describe a medical condition was transformed and accepted as a derogatory term used too often in everyday conversation to insult.

To me, a word used to demean and degrade the most honest and genuine person I know has no place in conversation.  Any conversation. It is possible that I take too much offense to the word, but when it’s spoken in my presence, to me, it is the worst form of DISRESPECT. You are insulting my brother’s intelligence, integrity and ability as a human. When you insult my brother, you insult me.

See what I mean when I say, Kryptonite?

So the challenge has always been, how do I tell you it is offensive if you might not realize what you are implying by using the word ‘Retard’ so casually and carelessly. Not always as easy as it seems. But necessary, in my eyes.

As a younger man, with a temper and a disposition much less adjusted, I used to take my offense in a very different direction. Often, I found myself reaching for someone’s collar, thinking I could shake the ignorance out of them. Let’s just say that I was a bit scrappier and less tactful once. I have since worked my way through those anger issues and have new more creative ways of confrontation.

Regardless, the crippling effect of my ‘Kryptonite’ persists!

It still happens often that I am faced with responding to the use of the word. Though it raises my blood pressure to scary levels each time, I have realized that this is the flag I carry, whether I like it or not. Maybe I’m too stubborn and I should just accept people’s ignorance. Maybe not.

Spread the Word to End the Word 

In the last few years, a campaign partnered by Best Buddies and Special Olympics has been gaining some awesome momentum. The campaign is called ‘Spread the Word to End the Word.’ It is a movement to raise awareness about the divisiveness and harmful nature of language, particularly the word ‘Retard.’ Being as today is Spread the Word to End the Word Day, I had a recent series of encounters that I would like to share…

Kryptonite’ in the Firehouse

I have been blessed with a career in the fire service as a firefighter/paramedic. I have also had the honor to stand alongside one of my other brothers, Mike, to lead Opportunity Knocks, an organization that provides programs for people with developmental disabilities.

Recently, I was moved to a new fire station where I began working with a new crew. I knew the guys fairly well just from being on the job for a few years, working in a neighboring district, training together and through other department events.

During the first few shifts of being with my new crew, I realized my ‘Kryptonite’ was entrenched. It wasn’t an everyday thing, but there were a few isolated references, R-words and the like, that resolved me to have 'The Talk'. I have always preferred actions to words in this regard, but sometimes it has to be the hard way because if we were going to get along, they needed to know where I stand on this.

Luckily, before I had the opportunity to come right out and say it, another option presented itself. I was to be given an award from General Motors for my work on the FD and with OK. Part of the presentation was a gathering of a few reps from each group at the firehouse. I’m not big on accolades and spotlights, but this was a perfect opportunity!

So I chose a few of the Warriors from OK, my brother Johno, my brother-from-another-mother Jarvis and my buddy ‘Beefy’. Jarvis has autism and Beef has an intellectual disability, both are very active at OK. And so, my OK family was to meet my FD family.

When they arrived I introduced everyone. As it often is, when outsiders come into the firehouse it was a bit awkward at first, but before long there was an awesome warmth in the place. Jarvis was talking sports, Beefy was fire buffing and of course, Johno had two handfuls of pizza.

It’s hard for me to describe with words exactly what happened in that short period of time of being together, but I could sense a new awareness. It was subtle and it was natural, but standing from where I stood, it was palpable. That day, I think the guys on my crew got 'it', much the same as I got 'it' when Johno was born. The beautiful thing about it was that it was all without me having said a word. Since that day, I have not heard the R-word or anything like it. Whether they realize it or not, they changed that day.

I am so proud to count myself amongst the guys I work with at the fire department and this is just another great reason why.

This situation taught me a lesson too. Not a new lesson in my life, but a new application to my ‘Kryptonite’ issues: there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

We all have our 'Kryptonite'. It's how we face up to it that determines our character. I’m still working on my Kryptonite. How’s things going with yours?

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John Halgren March 08, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Well said. Your composure during such times is a testament to your character. Again, well said my friend.
Liita Forsyth March 09, 2012 at 05:14 PM
Thank you Phil for educating our local culture. My son Nathan has DS and I can't even imagine someone calling him "r...... He's all about sunshine and surprises us every single day.
Larry Deguisne March 09, 2012 at 09:19 PM
I'm so proud of you and what you stand for and the love you have for mankind! I'm so happy to call you brother. Lar
don March 11, 2012 at 07:20 AM
I am recently retired. I had little idea that this life change brought with it fresh challenges to be addressed in finances, health care, life style. I have learned that we are all challenged at times in different ways. We must judge others not by their challenges, but their victories in overcoming them.
Cathy April 07, 2012 at 01:36 AM
Beautiful article. I have three children; 1 who has Down syndrome, 1 with Autism and one with Down syndrome and Autism. The "R" word is still my kryptonite; and sometimes I still feel the need to grab someone by their collar! I'm working on it! LOL


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