“Honey, please don’t say that word ever, ever again.” Samantha said these words with more clarity than anything I had yet to hear her say, and I, realizing the nature of my mistake, stood dumbfounded.
During the coaches’ training day, we volunteers had been told that the most important rule of Special Olympics Sports Camp is to never say the “r-word.” At the time, I scoffed, thinking, “Obviously you don’t use that word at a Special Olympics camp. What kind of idiot would?” I, evidently, was that kind of idiot. While talking with my fellow coach, Mark, I let slip that common phrase, “that’s retarded,” and Samantha, an athlete sitting nearby, overheard me.
Samantha accepted my ensuing profuse, panic-stricken apology and gave me a forgiving hug. When I apologized to her again while dancing with her at that night’s hoe down, she responded with a reassuring “Honey, I already forgot.”
Samantha’s straightforward handling of the situation, along with her almost immediate forgiveness, humbled me. Though I came to Special Olympics considering myself a forward thinker when it came to people with intellectual disabilities, I was acutely aware of a distinction between them and me. I perceived Sports Camp to be split into two groups: us, the coaches, and them, the athletes. Samantha came to Sports Camp with a preferable perspective. She considered Sports Camp to consist of just one group of people: those who love Sports Camp. This was the most remarkable thing about Samantha and the rest of the athletes. They varied from low to high ability levels and were grouped accordingly for sports, yet the athletes didn’t care. That some were more capable of living an independent life than others had no effect on how they interacted with each other. They truly treated everybody equally.
Samantha’s reaction to my insulting word was not only reasonable, it was ideal. She was assertive and straightforward, yet fair and forgiving. She reminded me that a person with disabilities could be more conscientious than me and that although I was born without intellectual disabilities, I was just as flawed as the athletes. This changed my mindset into one like Samantha’s that viewed all Sports Camp participants as simply participants without further classification.
By making me realize this, Samantha also made me realize why using the “r-word” is so lousy. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, retard officially means to slow down the progress of something. Thus, the medical term “mental retardation” means delayed or abnormal mental development. While speaking to Mark, however, I was trying to describe something that was stupid, ridiculous, nonsensical or illogical.
By using the “r-word” to do this, I made it synonymous with these adjectives without realizing that I had equated the athletes to these words. This is totally unfair because Samantha’s defining characteristics are not rooted in her disabilities: They are her unwavering devotion to fairness, her huge capacity for love and her unshakable confidence. Because to me, these are the traits by which overall ability and worth should be measured, Samantha should be among the most able people. She proves it by not caring.
Karim Doumar is a contributor to The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]