Don't use the 'R' word

RALEIGH, N.C. (BP)--Ben Stiller used to be one of my favorite comedians. He's lost my respect with his derogatory abuse of the word "retard" in his newest film, "Tropic Thunder," which might better be named "Topic Blunder."

If you think my grief is an overreaction, the film highlights a specific bias which I can't help but take personally. My son AJ, who has Down syndrome, had a rough year. The worst of it was losing his eyesight in his right eye from a case of undiagnosed juvenile glaucoma.

We, as his parents, grieve over that, as well as over events that aren't on his radar. He doesn't yet realize how many people will judge him for the things he cannot do, instead of marveling at the inspiring ways he often proves them wrong. He may not even realize how much we admire him for struggling to accomplish day-to-day tasks that people without his delay consider simple tasks.

AJ didn't know about the announcement in the name of medical advancement last year of an earlier prenatal diagnostic test to target Down syndrome in the first trimester of pregnancy, with obvious intent. Then, to our dismay, an esteemed University of North Carolina professor, Albert Harris -- in the business of training our future doctors -- recommended that any fetus with Down syndrome be aborted. That professor later acknowledged that his opinions were based on an outdated 30-year-old perception, but the damage was done.

I'd much prefer society eradicate prejudice than eradicate all babies with Down syndrome. I could go into all the ways our son has made our lives better -- and certainly our hearts bigger. Our lives would not be better if, as we were advised even before we declined the recommended test, we never had him. But society won't listen.

Call me humorless or too politically correct if you wish. Call me whatever you want. Mr. Stiller can claim to be poking fun at Hollywood, but he and officials with the movie perpetuate a repulsive mentality that sees human life as nothing more than a designer handbag accessory. Unfortunately, people who see the movie likely will not catch any subtle intent that those words are wrong. Sadly, phrases from this film will insidiously become ingrained in our culture.

So, we advocates fight on, and focus on all the inspirational stories we hear, despite the negativity that tries to demoralize us. We cheer as a Michael Phelps credits the inspiration of a young woman with Down syndrome for re-igniting his Olympic swimming goals. And we know what his mother means when she sighs about the teachers who told her that Michael, who was diagnosed with ADHD, would never focus on anything. We know better. It is not our children that are a burden, but the rejection from society. We will develop programs and build bridges to the community that people like Mr. Stiller insist on destroying with their disturbing and confusing messages. It does surprise me that Mr. Stiller apparently missed the kindergarten lesson about name-calling.

Words have meaning. I was raised not to use the "R" word because my mother told us it was disrespectful and people who used it as an insult were ignorant. (Substitute a racial slur every time Mr. Stiller says the "R" word in the film, and you will feel the physical assault and nausea we suffer). My father was decorated with Purple Hearts for fighting a Nazi regime that often ridiculed and made light of, but ultimately tried to marginalize and dehumanize a whole class of people, and erase them from the face of the earth.

These words hurt my son, who is adorable, hilarious and sensitive, has brought much joy into the world, and we expect will make meaningful contributions to society.


Andrea Higgins is a free-lance writer. She and her family live in Raleigh, N.C.

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