Ever since Nate’s diagnosis as being a boy who happens to have autism, I’ve been pretty protective of his feelings.  True, he’s 22 months old and isn’t really aware of what people say around him.  But one day, soon, he will be.  Before that even happens, Mom is playing defense. Even my use of the word “autism” is gauged.  Nate is a boy who happens to have autism; it doesn’t have him.  In the same way that you wouldn’t call someone who has cancer “cancerous,” Nate is not autistic.  Similarly, I choose to not capitalize the word unless I’m talking about his fabulous Autism Army, because I don’t want to give the word any more power than it’s due.

As soon as Nate was diagnosed, both Chad and I were concerned about Nate’s future.  What this means for him, who he will grow up to be, and, most significantly, how he will be received by the world.  Let’s face it.  Being a kid is hard, and other kids can be cruel.  Nate is perfect in every way right now: inquisitive, charming, and very innocent.  He’s never had his heart broken, never been rejected by friends, and never been called names.

There’s a pretty amazing organization in Illinois called Life My Way.  It’s a statewide advocacy group for extraordinary individuals with developmental disabilities.  Life My Way is so smart and savvy that, in addition to their significant work in their state, they turned their attention to how we can better our society for everyone with a developmental disability, like Nate.  And, like many others, they noticed a word creeping into mainstream language, often casually bantered about, that significantly affects people like Nate.  The word?  Retard.

For anyone who says words don’t hurt, they’re wrong.  The r-word is no different than the n-word or any other derogatory word that is intended to be disrespectful to a group of people.  It is hurtful.  It holds no love or kindness.  And it is not a word that anyone should be using in everyday conversations.

Life My Way created The Social Challenge, an incredibly innovative website that tracks all tweets that mention the R-word.  You can create a free, anonymous account on this site (or login via your Facebook account), which allows you to tweet an answer back through The Social Challenge’s Twitter account to the offender.  Life My Way has carefully written five responses for you to send.  The response I most often send is:

“@<Person who Tweeted>: We’re all 4 free speech.  Tweet r*tard if u like.  Just know that it impacts these people http://bit.ly.h9LOXo – From AM”

The live feed of r-word tweets is discouraging.  It is disheartening.  Life My Way has discovered the word is tweeted about every three seconds.  (Don’t believe them?  Go to their website and watch it live.)  There’s a counter on their website of the number of tweets mentioning the r-word send that day (it’s 7 PM right now; 2,188 instances have been sent today) and the number sent this week (It’s Thursday; 14,260 tweets with the r-word have been sent this week). But then, there’s the awesome counter that shows how many actions have been taken through their website.  Since starting this project one month ago, 10,619 tweets have been sent, asking folks to consider their use of the r-word.

Do people respond when you tweet them a message through Life My Way?  Yes.  Yes, they do.  Many think it’s an autobot that’s “spamming” them with this r-word message.  They don’t understand that countless volunteers sit at their computers and respond to this endless stream of tweets.  And some are just downright rude.  Some of the responses I got back were:

@socialchalleng I’m friends with mentally handicapped people and even they do not take offense to the usage of the word retard. #NoteThat

@kukogan #takeretardback Retard is ok to use, don’t let a retard on twitter tell you that you can’t say it.

@Looks like more social retards are trying to harass many for saying retard.  Everyone tweet #takeretardback so those retards back down

These are the people that I don’t want Nate to meet during his life time.

But then, there are the amazing responses, which Life My Way has posted on their Facebook page.  These include:

@socialchalleng I am very sorry for the offensive word.  I am one who typically does not use that word.  Please accept this as an apology.

@socialchalleng Oh gosh.  I’m sooooo sorry.  I feel bad.  I would never say that again.

@socialchalleng I’m sorry.  I admit I was a bit naive.  I will think about my vocabulary next time.

I hope that The Social Challenge makes a generation aware of its casual use of a word that could be very hurtful to my sweet boy, Nate.  If you use the word, frequently or infrequently, I ask you to stop.  There are so many descriptive words in the English language.  Pick another one.  If your children or someone you know is using this word in everyday language, ask them to stop.  When you hear someone saying the word inappropriately, think of my sweet, shining boy, Nate.  Then think what it would be like if he overheard that person saying it.  I hope you will ask them to kindly choose another word.

If you want to jump on the bandwagon and send out a few tweets through The Social Challenge’s website, you can easily sign up on their website.  You can also friend them on Facebook (their account is LifeMyWay – no spaces) to keep track of all the amazing work that they do.