10:15 AM

UHD Prof Authors Houston Chronicle Op-Ed on the 'R-Word'

Reprinted from the Houston Chronicle.

Pfeffer: Get insults to the disabled out of conversation

The 'R-word' is hurtful and undermines accomplishments

A few days ago, I went to a new doctor to get a physical, but what I actually got was a massive insult. It's one my family and I have dealt with before, but one I was stunned to be facing in this setting.

A recent transplant to Houston, I wanted to establish care with a physician affiliated with one of our city's fine hospitals. An hour after I checked in for my appointment, after a $25 co-pay and an unexplained, intrusive conversation with a medical intern, the doctor finally entered the exam room.

"You really don't need a physical," she said. "It's retarded that they recommend yearly physicals. Come back in three years, unless you get sick and need to come in before then."

I was shocked. Forget that she denied me medical treatment. How dare she so flippantly use the R-word?

I nodded, seemingly in agreement with her, though I was really stunned into silence by her use of this deeply offensive language.

I let her leave me unexamined in the examination room, too polite to confront or correct her. I let her move on to her next patient without telling her that I deeply resented what she said.

My quiet submission ends here.

My brother has an autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disorder that affects people differently but which is generally characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication.

Those who don't know better just figure my brother's "not normal" - whatever that is - or, worse, they think of the R-word to describe something they do not understand.

I was born just 17 months after he was. From the moment I learned to speak, I have used my voice to defend my brother from the insults and degradation of others, ranging from schoolyard bullies who used that awful word to taunt him, to insensitive strangers who were clueless about the pain they inflicted. My recent experience with the R-word was less direct, but still just as important to address.

Nationwide, a movement has grown in an effort to end the use of the word; next Wednesday, the awareness campaign peaks with "Spread the Word to End the Word" events held across the country. I'm grateful for the attention and awareness these high-profile efforts engender, but my campaign is personal.

Here's my problem with that derogatory word: The doctor's use of the R-word undermines my brother's worth as a contributing member of society.

Just like that doctor, my brother gets up every day and goes independently to work. Her use of the R-word undermines the social barriers that he has overcome to be valued as a full-time employee providing administrative support to a law firm. Her use of the R-word undermines the strong relationships he has built with his colleagues - attorneys who enjoy his company so much that they invite him for weekend visits with their families. Her use of that word undermines his worth as a loving brother and as a devoted uncle to our niece. Her use of that word undermines his ability to maintain close friendships that span decades.

Everything special and extraordinary about my brother is swept away, tossed aside as insignificant by her use of that language. He is reduced to his diagnosis. The colloquial use of the R-word implies that people with intellectual disabilities are different from the rest of us, less than.

But what disables my brother is not his autism. He has demonstrated that even with this disorder, he can live a full, productive and happy life. What disables him is the inability of others, like this doctor, to acknowledge and accommodate people with differences.

The language we use affects our attitudes, which in turn has an impact on the way we behave and the way we treat others.

Stand up for the abilities of all types of people by joining the movement to end use of the R-word.

Rebecca Pfeffer is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Houston-Downtown.