These t-shirts are wrong. The wrongest kind of wrong.

Disability language
The ‘Retarde’ t-shirts.

You want the bad news or the good news first?

The bad news? All right.

Over the last couple of weeks, shop in Adelaide thought it was a great idea to sell t-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘RETARDE’. Not ‘RETARD’, mind you, it has an ‘E’ on the end which makes it not cruel, but hilarious, right?

Actually, WRONG. The wrongest kind of wrong. Even though the shirts sold well, and even though some were apparently bought by  people with disabilities – WRONG.

The good news is yesterday the shop bowed to people-pressure and took the shirts off the shelves, but not before the management of the shop said people – kids, particularly, who feel hurt by the joke should ‘toughen up.’

‘We’re mollycoddling them to death,’ Golbalize retail chain director Clayton Cross said on the Sunrise program after disability advocates said the shirts were demeaning and humiliating.

Yesterday, Mr Cross apologised, kind of, when he announced remaining shirts would be removed from the shelves. He was annoyed that the designers refused to buy back remaining stock but said the company will, ‘put a bit more thought’ into clothing orders in future. He ruled out ‘censoring the designers and  fashion going forward.’

That’s positive… I think. Thought is good.

Now, I need to be very careful from this point, for two reasons.

One is that I’m often the one leading the ‘toughen up’ choir. My song is loud and clear:

You are 12; you don’t need an iPhone.

I don’t care if you’ve decided you don’t like sausages – eat your dinner.

Go play outside and don’t come back in unless you’re bleeding or it’s raining, and even then …

So maybe I’m opening myself up to accusations of hypocrisy.

Secondly, I wrote a post last January about the time a friend brought his son to stay at the beach with us. This boy lives with autism. Stupidly, ignorantly, I described him as ‘being autistic’. Lots of people were upset by my post for all sorts of reasons – some I accept, some I reject, but if people feel hurt I’ll always have a good hard think.

Disability language
Kate wrote a the time a family came to stay with them.

I was startled by the impact my words had. I’m more careful now, and realise that even within the disability community there are differing opinions about terminology – what’s right and what’s wrong or even hurtful. Now I ask.

The friends I wrote about said they’re mostly concerned with people being kind. To them, it’s all about intent. They’re happy when someone wants to help out, and the choice of words isn’t a big deal to them. Unless one of those words is retard. Or spaz.

Those words have never been ok and now they’re even worse – because we know better. The correct response when you’re called on them is, ‘I’m sorry.’ Not, ‘Toughen up.’

Over the years, all sorts of words have been replaced with more appropriate ones and it can be hard to keep up, especially if you’re old.

My great aunt is 83, and one day used the word ‘cripple’ to describe the man living downstairs from them. ‘We’re taking Ron to church,’ she told my 6 year old, ‘He can’t drive himself because he’s crippled.’

‘Norma!’ said my husband, ‘You can’t say crippled any more.’

‘Really?’ She was horrified that she might said something been offensive, ‘What am I meant to say?’

‘You just say, ‘our neighbour’. Or that he ‘has a disability.’

Later, I wondered what Ron (who’s in his eighties too) thinks of being described as, ‘crippled.’

‘I suspect he doesn’t think of it at all,’ said my husband. ‘He’s just happy to have a lift to church.’

There’s a world of difference, I think, between Auntie Norma saying, ‘crippled’,  me writing ‘autistic boy,’  and people who sell and wear t-shirts that say RETARDE. Norma and I didn’t know what was right. Maybe we should have, but once we did, we resolved to be more careful. We might be clumsy but we’re not cruel. Let us know we got it wrong and we’ll change. We don’t say, ‘toughen up.’

Language is a tricky thing and it’s evolving all the time. I do worry sometimes that people are so concerned  about using the wrong terminology that they’ll avoid saying anything at all about people living with disability. No one wants to go back there.

RETARDE t-shirts though, had to disappear. Sticks and stones might break bones, but that word breaks hearts.

What do you think of the RETARDE shirts? 

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