The ‘R’ Word: Still Toxic, Even if You Don’t Say it Out Loud

Artist and poet Philip Tétrault wanders the streets of Montreal playing the pan pipes. His story is told in his brother Pierre’s film ‘This Beggar’s Description.’
Jan 10, 2009 04:30 AM
Helen Henderson

Imbeciles, subhumans, morons, village idiots, fools, retards.

Never mind what Mamma used to tell you. Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will always hurt you.

Big, enduring hurts that can’t be mended by plaster casts. Hurts that leave deep scars and drain confidence. Hurts that create outcasts of people who have
much to contribute and from whom we have much to learn.

Ask anyone with an intellectual disability what it’s like to be mocked and you will uncover wounds that are almost impossible to heal. They endure no matter how much money or stature a family has.

The best hope for easing the pain lies in teaching society the value of the secrets known only by someone who might once routinely have been labelled “Retard.”

The “R” word.

In these days of political correctness, it may no longer be used with abandon. But as documentary filmmaker Pierre Tétrault found out, it is still never far from the surface, despite the best efforts of an increasingly articulate community of families who have felt its sting.

“We have been studied as if we were a different species,” says Joe Clayton, the Metis narrator of Tétrault’s The `R’ Word, which will air on OMNI Television this year.

Clayton, who was sent to an institution at age 12, takes us across the country, through a shocking history of abuse as told by the people whose lives were dehumanized by the system.

Amid the prejudice and despair, however, there also have been significant steps forward.

The lessons of tolerance and persistence in the face of adversity have never been better taught than by those living with intellectual disabilities.

When disabilities were omitted as grounds for discrimination in the first drafts of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it was the families of intellectually disabled children who led the fight to get the situation rectified.

The ideas that have emerged from the support circles formed by parents desperate for help today drive many of the most constructive policies giving disabled people the support they deserve.

Still, Tétrault warns, the danger that institutionalization will make a comeback is always there. And the shortage of funding for the necessary community support systems, particularly suitable and affordable housing, persists.

As a filmmaker, Tétrault is particularly sensitive to disability issues.

This Beggar’s Description, his stunning National Film Board documentary about his brother Philip’s harrowing, lifelong journey in the darkness of mental illness, debuted four years ago at the Montreal World Film Festival.

Philip Tétrault, writer and artist, wanders the streets of Montreal, playing the pan pipes and leaving a paper trail of poems.

“Everything I did seemed to be controlled by an invisible force,” Philip says of those days when things started degenerating.

“This gave me a cross of guilt.”

If he read a newspaper story about a murder, he felt his thoughts were responsible for that murder.

By the time he was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he believed the doctors were judges, summoned over the hospital intercom to preside over “this place of execution.”

Somewhere along the way, about 30 years ago, Philip met Leonard Cohen, who admired his work and has kept in touch. They sit together on a bench in a small Montreal park that has been declared “a free zone of the imagination.”

This Beggar’s Description is available from the National Film Board.

The `R’ Word still hasn’t been slotted into OMNI TV’s official schedule but executive vice-president of programming Malcolm Dunlop says he hopes the documentary will air sometime this spring.

The stigma of intellectual disability is such an important topic, says Dunlop. “It doesn’t discriminate between any communities.”

Helen Henderson’s column appears Saturdays.

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