As a disability rights advocate I am accustomed to controversy and challenging people’s perceptions and beliefs about disability. However I was speechless recently when a waitress within the first 2 minutes of serving us used the “R” word twice.
I ordered a margarita on the rock and my sister ordered coffee. The waitress returned a few minutes to apologize that our drinks were taking so long. She said “I am sorry, I am really not retarded but I put your margarita order in wrong and I did not forget your coffee I put on a new pot so it will be a few minutes” I was caught so off guard! My sister almost had to pick my chin off the table. Then it got worst, she repeated it. “I really am not retarded its just gonna take a few more minutes.” I was aghast!
After composing myself, I wondered what was I going to do about the comment? Is it my place or right to say something to the waitress? Should and how do I turn this into a teachable moment?
Its no surprise my sister and I spent the next hour talking about what to do. After all, doing nothing was not an option!
Being the blackberry junkie I am, I posted the interaction on facebook and asked my friends what they would do. The responds ran the full spectrum:
-Give the waitress the finger.
-Don’t leave a tip and write a note telling her why.
-Tell her about how offended I was and why.
-Don’t say anything, just let it go.
-Wait till after the meal, pay the bill give her a big tip and take a few minutes and explain how her language offended me and why. Give her the benefit of my concern.
Here is what happened:
We decided to engage the waitress in conversation when we could. My sister paid the bill and left the tipping to me. She also bolted out of the restaurant (chicken!!) I called the waitress over and asked her to sit with me for a minute. She obliged. I told her what a great meal we had and that her service was wonderful. I then handed her my business card. I went on and said, “I am a disability rights advocate and part of my work is to raise awareness about disability issues.” She listen attentively. “I am not sure you were aware that within the first few minutes of serving us you used the word “retarded”. The word is offensive. It is demeaning to people with disabilities.”
We learned that she was 40, single and in a long-term relationship. She was new to the area and loved her job. She was very nice. She appeared very good at her job; attentive to her customers.
My sister and I ended up having have a wonderful meal.
She was very receptive. She said she was referring to herself as retarded and did not mean to offend anyone. I told her that is exactly the point. She was using the word to minimize people with intellectual disabilities by equating her behavior of getting our drink order wrong as behavior consistent with a person that is “retarded”.
You could see that was an “ah ha” moment for her. She was great. She shared with me that she has people in her extended family with both mental and physical disabilities and would never want to minimize them. She thanked me for taking the time in a private, one on one way to raise her awareness.
I handed her the paid bill with a larger then normal tip. She thanked me again. She was very sincere.
Now this was not an easy thing to do and in fact even with all my experience, I was nervous. I got lucky in that the waitress was receptive and willing to listen. It could have very easily turned out differently. Here are some of the lessons I learned through this experience:
-Assume good intent. People are not being malicious, they may be unaware.
-Outrage in and of itself does not result in change. I needed to do something. Action is necessary to result in change.
-In doing something, it’s important to assess the situation. I needed to figure out how the message was going to be best received.
-That education is so important and to take advantage of the moments that present themselves.
Therefore, As a result of this experience and lessons, I am going to create a one page handout on why the “R” word is hurtful and offensive and give suggestion on how to talk about the issue. (Stay tuned I will post it here)
In the mean time here is a link to an article I wrote in December 2007 about the “R” word.
Finally here is Rosa’s Law.This is the law that President Obama signed in October 2010 which eliminates the words mental retardation from federal laws and replaces it with intellectual disabilities.
Additionally this is the link to a web site dedicated to ending the use of the “R” word. http://therword.org. Take a look and consider signing the pledge to stop using the word.
Lets all take the moments that are presented and change one heart and mind at a time.
Executive Director, Disability Rights Montana