Tracy Caliendo and her son Joseph could not believe their eyes as they stared at a shelf in the home section of the Target in Medford, NY. Someone had arranged metal letters to spell out the word "Retards."
Tracy figured that some teens had been goofing around, but she didn't take it lightly. Joseph, 9, has Aspergers; his brother, Max, 8, has autism. "I wouldn't have been offended if it was the f-word," she says about the incident, which happened last Sunday. "But that word is so disrespectful toward people with disability."
Joseph knew it, too. "Mommy, that's a bad word, right?" he asked.
"Yeah, that's a very bad word," Tracy responded.
"What does it mean, again?" asked Joseph.
"It's a word people use toward people with disabilities or a word people use kind of ignorantly—instead of saying 'stupid' or 'silly' they choose to use that word and it's really mean," Tracy explained.
"People with disabilities? Like Max!" said Joseph. "I think we need to change this so nobody else can see it."
Joseph (right) with his brother, Max
There's a growing awareness in this country that the word "retard" is offensive in any context, including when it's used as slang for "stupid." In fact, national studies conducted by The Harris Poll over the last nine years found that 70% of teens in 2017 say they've told a person it's wrong to use the r-word, compared to 48% in 2008. Still, some people haven't gotten the memo. Nearly three in ten teens and four in ten adults polled believe there's nothing wrong with using the word "retarded" to describe a thing or situation. Some consider the term amusing, as evidenced by the rogue display in Target.
Tracy, a stay-at-home mom, assumed that she and Joseph had come upon the letters before store staffers did. "Target's such a family-minded place," she says, noting that the store closer to her home has Caroline's Carts for children with disabilities. (Target rolled them out nationwide last March.) The company has also featured children of all abilities in ads. But people are people, and Target merchandise is tempting. Last Christmas, Tracy recalls, someone arranged Christmas stockings with monogrammed initials to spell out the word "fart" which, she says, "Joseph thought was so funny."
Joseph has long been a boy fascinated with letters and numbers. "When he was two years old, his favorite show was Wheel of Fortune!" recalls Tracy, who describes her oldest son as being "caring and compassionate." If a kid in class is being picked on, she says, "he'll befriend that kid, because he knows what it's like to be different and picked on." Last year, when Joseph spoke at the differently-abled assembly a school guidance counselor organized, she continues, "he spoke about things he likes, like sports and playing soccer, and how he wants to have friends just like everyone else. He explained how sometimes he feels out of place, like trying to play a PlayStation 4 game in a Wii U."
As much of an advocate as Joseph can be for himself, he is protective of his brother. And so, he began thinking of other words to spell out, searching the shelves for letters. "First he wanted to write his and Max's name, but he couldn't find an 'x' to save his life!" she says. After a few minutes of poking around, Joseph came up with an "m" and created a new word. "Now Max won't see it or anybody else," he announced.
Right after Tracy snapped photos, her husband, Dave, and Max met up with them. Dave asked what was going on. "Look at what Joe spelled!" she said. And Max said, "Let's find an 'x' and spell my name!" which is when Tracy informed him there was no "x" to be found.
Tracy says she appreciates that her son stands up for himself. "He knows that his disability is a part of who he is, and that it explains things about him, but it's not his or his brother's identity," she says. She also appreciates the lesson Joseph learned that day in Target: "There's always a way to turn a negative into a positive—you just have to have the right mindset to do it."
Photos courtesy of Tracy Caliendo