Last week a good friend of mine, Karen, spotted a top emblazoned across the front with “RETARDE” in a youth fashion store’s front window. Upset, she walked in and had a discussion with the store manager, who moved the tops inside the store, but declined to remove them from sale.
Karen is the Mum of three gorgeous kids, one of whom, Josh, had profound and multiple disabilities. He passed away two years ago at the age of nine. We watched and cried as dozens of blue balloons were released into the sky.
Josh “touched” practically everyone who knew him. I usually hate those cliqued terms, but I’m sticking with it on this occasion, because with Josh, it was true. A boy of few words. Well, no words, but a smile that came and went with consciousness and made whomever caught one feel like the sun had just streamed into their hearts. He really was just that kind of kid.
As Josh’s parent, Karen has seen it all, the people who cross the street to avoid the kid in the wheelchair as well as the teens who might snigger “retard” behind his back.
It’s a bloody hurtful word, the r-word. And there’s no place for it in our society today. It started off as simply a descriptor – to delay or slow down, but has become a word of hate speech, used to humiliate, bully, demean and dehumanise people with intellectual disability. It belongs in the same place as n^gger, and other words used to describe indigenous Australians or LGBT folk in years gone by.
So Karen called the centre management, who agreed it was not an appropriate item for sale but could do nothing to remove it, and she left messages with the store’s head office. They didn’t call back. She emailed them. They didn’t email back.So she posted a picture she took on Facebook, and the snowball started rolling down the hill. As it grew momentum, dozens of people started calling branches of the store, and leaving messages at HQ. I did too. We also emailed them. Frustrated with a lack of response we started posting on their Facebook page. Nothing nasty, just requests to remove the product from their shelves. Every post I saw had what appeared to be a genuine name and profile attached. I knew many of the names as local families, and many as national disability advocates. We also started posting on the Facebook page of the designers, two young and seemingly flighty (I’m being generous) things whose website said the product was not intended to offend, but rather that the word used was “RETARDE”, the French term for delay, or late. Hmmm…
I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but a quick internet search (lesson for young people) exposed some pretty poor privacy settings, along with a photo of one of them wearing the shirt with her friends’ comments laughing at the “retard”. Like. Lol. The other designer shares a public post, checking in the pub with the update “Let’s get retarded”. Lol. Again.
Further Googling revealed one of their retailers, selling the product online with the description “A PERSON TO BE CONSIDERED FOOLISH OR SOCIALLY INEPT” in big block letters. Hmmm… doesn’t sound much like “delay” in French… This description, and the designer’s Facebook page have both since been deleted, but their Facebook profiles remain glaringly, offensively, public.
The store managers by this stage had started to sprout the same company line, using the “French” excuse, and some line about the “integrity” of the designers. I nearly choked of my OJ. And while several of them were clearly ashamed of the product, they all stated there was simply nothing they could do about it.
With the chain management refusing to engage, and a journalist noticing the online activity, things started to ramp up. But the chain owner couldn’t see what the problem was. Apparently he has some disabled friends, and they all thought it was a storm in a teacup.
So there I was, 11pm on a Sunday night, figuring out how to get through to this guy, in a short grab on national breakfast television the next day, that it’s just not right. That he wouldn’t wear that shirt at lunch with his Mum, and that some words do hurt. And this one hurts some of the most undervalued, marginalised, vulnerable people in our world today. That Josh’s family, and thousands people with intellectual disability feel like they’ve been kicked in the guts every time they hear it, or see it.
Globalize has a corporate responsibility. Their website features the great work they do educating kids in Africa, yet they refuse to acknowledge the depth of pain they inflict, and they encourage bullying of children and people with disability in their own backyard by normalising hate speech. Globalize, I’m now begging you, for Josh, for my son, for my friends with intellectual disability and thousands of others, please remove the shirt from your stores. Please.