I haven’t shared this story with many people.
But, now seems like the right time to do so.
Seven years ago, I attended a prominent, week-long executive leadership institute for community college administrators. A small group of us had the privilege of listening to some of the most respected and well-known leaders of the community college world share their insights, relay their own professional journeys, and describe challenges they had overcome. After one particularly inspiring session by a prominent and nationally-known president, a small group gathered around for the “after chat.” Our imaginations and dreams had been sparked, and we wanted to soak up all the wisdom and insight we could while this leader was present.
Although what I’m about to tell you happened seven years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. To the question, “what’s it like working with the state legislature.” This president said the following:
“Well, let me tell you. It’s like working with your retarded Uncle Harold…”
More was said, but I didn’t hear it. I was overwhelmed with shock and disbelief, and I immediately began processing how I was going to respond (not react – that’s a different blog post). I happened to be standing right next to this president, who was sitting/standing on a stool. With all the courage I could muster, I put my hand on the president’s shoulder. Of course, that gesture garnered eye contact. I took a deep breath and said, “I am going to say something to you that I have never said to anyone, and I am going to try to do it with as much kindness and grace I can because I do not want you to feel bad.” By this time, I had everyone’s full attention!
I continued by saying,
“My daughter is retarded. She teaches me every day about learning and leadership.”
An apology was quickly made, and I willingly accepted it. I often wonder if that president remembers that interaction or changed as a result of that interaction. I choose to hope so.
To me, this is what accountability looks like. This is how we hold someone accountable for their words – because words matter! This college president meant no harm. I know that. The moment, the adulation, the arrogance, and/or the attempt to be funny got in the way of decency and good judgment. Intentional harm was not the motive.
Many people still use the word “retarded” in a self-deprecating way and don’t think about the true impact of the word. I wish I could tell you that I demonstrate this same courage every time I hear that word used. More often than not, I let it slide telling myself, “they didn’t mean any harm.”
But isn’t that the thing? Without accountability, we do harm and we don’t even know it. We must hold ourselves and each other accountable for our words. Doing so can be terrifying. More terrifying, however, are people who purposefully choose words with the intent to harm (physical, mental or emotional), mislead, or misinform. Our nation has recently seen the results of what can happen.
And, please…for those of you already thinking it…this is not about being a “snowflake” or easily offended. This is about humanity. Research clearly shows that lack of accountability makes it easier to dehumanize an individual or a group of people. The effects of dehumanization are real. Auschwitz. Slavery. Those are just two extreme examples.
Accountability for our words. It’s just got to matter. It’s just got to.