"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." ---MLK
As I stood in line at CVS today, waiting to purchase a few gift cards, the woman behind the counter seemed nice enough. She looked to be about sixty, with short blonde hair, a stylish woman with a heavy Boston accent. I've seen her before. I'm pretty sure she's the woman who assists in the beauty and make-up aisle. When it was my turn, she seemed to me to be out of place behind the register, someone who was filling in because the store was busy with customers. She activated the gift cards, except for one card she couldn't figure out. She stood there, looking from the card to the register, absent-mindedly rubbing the glue off the back of the card as she tried to figure this one card out. Without looking at me, she remarked, "I'm really not a retard. I just haven't done this kind of transaction in awhile."
There was a delay in my brain, something like the delay you see when a TV commentator is interviewing someone in another part of the world, and it takes a moment for the person to respond. I questioned whether I actually heard what I thought I heard. I looked around to meet the eyes of a woman just behind me. She'd heard it too. The shock must have been registered on my face because she slowly shook her head and quietly sighed.
At that moment, my fight or flight response kicked in, but I knew I couldn't act. There were people on line behind me and only one cashier. If I chose that moment to speak my mind, it would have only embarrassed her. This needed to be a teachable moment, but I did nothing. I finished the transaction and walked away.
Before I tell you the rest of the story (you didn't think I'd let that go, did you?), I will tell you that mothers of children with disabilities have to become militant moms. Sometimes the personal becomes the political. But there are times when a situation like this has to be handled delicately.
Let me digress for a moment. A few years ago my husband was sitting around a table of colleagues from work eating lunch. One of the men, who didn't know Ken well, made a remark about people with Down syndrome getting plastic surgery. God knows what brought that up, but the man said something to the effect that plastic surgery wasn't going to help "someone like that. They'll still look retarded." After a very uncomfortable silence on the part of those who do know about our son Cliff, my husband decided to let it go. I asked him how he could possibly walk away and say nothing! He told me that he knew, after lunch was over, that someone would take the man aside and tell him. Ken thought he'd learn the lesson much more effectively that way.
I walked out of CVS heading towards my car. I unlocked the car and got in. My heart was pounding practically out of my chest. For twenty-five years, I have never, ever let something like that comment go without speaking up. Locking up the car, I went back into the store and saw the same long line. I had no plan at that point. Then, I approached a woman towards the back of the store and asked, "Are you the manager?" She answered yes and I took a deep breath. She listened to what had transpired and she saw how one word had made such an impact on me. I told her I didn't want her to reprimand the woman, but to explain to her, and every employee, what is acceptable in the workplace and what isn't. How what you say reflects on who you are, and ultimately, on the business. And how words are powerful, whether you realize it or not.
Who am I? I am part of the resistance movement. A movement that says, you will not use hate speech about my child. Whether you meant any harm or did not mean any harm, you cause harm when you say that word. When you say it, its meaning reverberates out into the world. You may say you are not insulting my child, that it's a word everyone uses, that it doesn't really mean anything. But each time you say it, you reinforce the acceptance of it, and no matter how you spin it, it's hurtful and wrong.
I hope, with all my heart, that the blonde woman in CVS will remember and take to heart what her manager tells her. It's my hope that if she realizes it's not okay to say it at work, it's not okay to say it anywhere. Maybe, just maybe, that understanding will reverberate out into the world instead.