Redefining Disability

By Aysha White

March 21st was the first official day of spring. It was also the 9th annual International Down Syndrome Awareness day. Down Syndrome is a genetic condition defined by having an extra chromosome that causes intellectual disabilities ranging in severity.  It is thought to occur in 2/1000 births; however, since the invention of genetic testing, approximately 92% of fetuses prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome are terminated before birth.

People with Down Syndrome can lead happy, long, and fulfilling lives just like any other person. They can become actresses like Lauren Potter who stars in Glee, or Special Olympic gold medalists like Paula Sage, or elected councilors like Angela Bachiller. These women are exceptional by any standard, disabled or not. In fact, Special Olympics was established by the sister of John F. Kennedy, who was diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. Their work in promoting the athletic triumphs of Special Olympians is recognized internationally and has made a tremendous impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people with Down Syndrome. Currently, the focus of the Special Olympics is not only to promote the athletic abilities of athletes, but also to focus their efforts on the campaign to stop everyday individuals from using the “R” word as a throw-away insult.

Here is a phrase that has circulated around the disabled community for years: “see the ability and not the disability.” At one point, it was featured on posters that were meant to break stereotypes regarding disabled people, but I also interpret it in a broader sense: that you should always see the good in people, their positive abilities and qualities and not judge what makes a life worth living. The aforementioned women proved the world wrong by leading happy, successful lives regardless of their disabilities. However, not many get the chance to do so because discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities still runs rampant.

Discrimination against the mentally challenged was once described to me as “the last socially acceptable form of hatefulness against an oppressed group.” Unfortunately, I believe this to be true because people with Down Syndrome and the intellectually disabled are a minority in the truest sense of the word. They are a small group of people, smaller than women, smaller than people of color, and smaller than the LGBT community.

Apart from the institutional discrimination against them, intellectually disabled people are often the punch line (not in an affectionate way) of jokes, and the word “retarded” gets thrown around by all kinds of people in a casual way, as though it is not hate language.

The aim of World Down Syndrome Day is to end the use of the R-word, as it is an antiquated term that even the medical community has ceased using. The word “retarded” is not just a word; it is a hate slur. It reduces the individuals with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities to people who don’t deserve not respect but scorn and derision, to creatures less than human.

So, next time you want to describe how poorly you did on a math test, how your friend was acting, or your toaster not working, don’t use retarded. Use slow, irritating, frustrating, silly, unhelpful, annoying, foolish, or vapid.

And maybe, if you do, the world will slowly start to become a more tolerant place.