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On 'Retard': Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

By Madeline Holler |

retarded, westboro baptist church

Seriously, pick a different word.

I’m all over the 1st Amendment. Good stuff, that right to free speech and assembly.

I even agree with the Supreme Court decision to let Fred Phelps and his family of bigots picket funerals. Do I agree with them? No, not even a little. Do I think the Westboro Baptist Church should be arrested for their actions? No, not that either. (I actually wish we’d all start inviting them to our funerals, give them friendly waves and a plate of church lady fried-chicken and hash brown casserole. But that’s something to explore in a different post.)

I’m against laws censoring language (hate speech is an important exception), but I think as individuals we could do more self-regulating — whether or not we’re in front of kids. Because the word “retard”? With every free speech bone in my body, I wish people would just stop saying it.

I’m bringing this up because Wednesday was Spread the Word to End the Word Day, an annual push by people in the organization R-Word to get others to stop using the word and to be more inclusive. Ellen Seidman, a mother who blogs at Love That Max, spent last few days responding to Tweets that included the word “retard” or “retarded.” She doesn’t think people will drop the word immediately based on her replies; she just hopes to raise awareness that those words refer to real people who find the term hurtful. The Tweeters’ reactions are … well … here’s an excerpt:

You’d expect most people to ignore you, which they do. You’d expect some be defensive, as the very act of tweeting at them is confrontational, even though you try to keep your tweets even-handed: Hi. Mom of kids with disabilities here. The word “retard” is demeaning. But still, you will surprised by how people dig in their heels:

Now, I understand the temptation to use the word. “Retard” is such a strong word. Not just the meaning, but the sound itself: two strong syllables, that hard “d” end. Those heavy and rich American “r’s” making it actually feel good in your mouth to say. It’s a stronger way of saying “ridiculous,” right? It’s a more vicious way of calling someone an idiot. It’s powerful.  It’s demeaning. It gets attention. And since the people it describes are thought to be spazzy, perpetually happy and sometimes cross-eyed, it’s funny. As insulting words go,”retard” is a pretty good one.

Ahhh, but it’s not just a word. It refers to a specific group of disadvantaged and misunderstood human beings — a group who, some argue, use the words themselves. Well then! That makes it available to everyone, right?

No, not really. Not really at all.

Just like “fag” and “that’s so gay” and the “n” word, anyone who basks in the privileges granted those who are not gay men, gay women, black — or, in this case, not intellectually disabled — don’t get to use those words. Does it sound unfair? Well, honestly, how much more do straight, white, neurologically typical people want? We win already. We really do! Are we at risk of falling into a linguistic crisis if we give up derogatory terms describing an often obvious and always unchangeable characteristic of, not ourselves, but other people? People who, thanks to prejudice about those characteristics, have suffered deeply as a group?

Go ahead and call me a language cop. Cops make arrests yet I’m letting you off with raised eyebrow and a flinch. I’m not trying to tell you want you can and cannot say. But I would ask heavy users of “retard” and “retarded” to think about why they’re so reliant on the word. What is it about those words in particular that make it their go-to put-down? And why, if I’m striking a nerve, do you feel so compelled to hang on to it?

Is it because even though you’re neuro-typical you’re just not that smart? (Oh, did that hurt?)

Photo: rword.org

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About Madeline Holler

madeline-holler

Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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9 thoughts on “On 'Retard': Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

  1. blahblahblah says:

    My aunt is learning disabled. I have always resented the word retarded as it is commonly applied to persons who are mentally challenged, downs syndrom and the like. The word retarded means to impede the progress of something. My aunt and her disability do not impede the progress of anything or her own life. I resent that a word that is useful and descriptive about some situations and people is used about my aunt. Its a bad word. Its antiquated. Its useless for describing a group of people with learning disablities and mental challenges. I know no one who is disabled in that way that is retarded.

  2. Denise says:

    Fred Phelps is retarded.

  3. goddess says:

    Well, what about moron an, idiot and imbecile too? Those, along with retarded were all used in the past as medical terms and descriptors.
    I had a son with developmental disabilities-slash-mental retardation. I’ve always felt guilty that the use of this word did not tick me off as much as everyone else around me.
    But seriously- what about those other terms? We use them as much- if not more- in a derogatory sense- and they were used in a very similar – and legitimate- context in the past.

  4. goddess says:

    See, blahblahblah- I saw the brain damage my son suffered as very much *retarding* or impeding the progress in having a typical life. You know- the one where he could walk, talk, scratch an itch, feed himself, sit unaided, roll over, etc.

  5. goddess says:

    Oh Madeline- concerning your last comment: the fact that the docs classifeid my son as MR/DD and the therapists objected to the MR label//classification did neither make it true nor make it false.; the neurotypical/not that smart comment would not make a dent in my IQ score of 15q, KWIM? (Though a decade of age since that test might, bwa ha ha ha !)
    I think it was the lesson I learned with labels and my son that also taught me that truth transcends mere words. Call someone what you wish- it doesn’t alter their reality.

  6. Lucky says:

    The problem with the MR diagnosis is that it is generally considered to be a disability or a disadvantage, and that’s what lends it so easily to insults. The public appropriates the medical terminology because they want to describe something as impeding progress. This is why the terms idiot and imbecile and now retarded have fallen out of favor. I don’t know if there is a way to solve this problem. I think the best thing we can do is ignore the insults and focus on teaching the public that people with MR diagnosis are not defined by their disability any more than cancer patients are defined by their illness. No one takes offense to the phrase “cancer on society.”

  7. goddess says:

    The MR diagnosis also opened up all sorts of treatment plans and modalities for my son.
    All of this said- I won’t use the word, out of respect, in the derogatory manner. But as a descriptor, I’ve never seen a problem. Being labeled DD instead of MR wouldn’t have given my son one more ability he never had.
    BTW- imbecile, idiot and morn are still totally alive and well in the public vernacular for the derogatory. And they were also used to delineate levels of IQ medically in the past.

  8. J. Nagle says:

    “Retarded” is an euphemism. The standard term is “mentally defective”. That’s the term used in law. US gun laws prohibit gun ownership by mental defectives. The FBI maintains a list of 400,000 mental defectives. In 2005, the TSA looked into building a list of mental defectives for use with their “no-fly” list.

    That’s the reality.

  9. JenB says:

    My brother is developmentally disabled. He knows that retarded is considered an insult and doesn’t like it being applied to him.

    I understand what Goddess is saying, and it is true moron, idiot, etc, were classifications for different IQ levels when speaking of developmental disabilities. They are not classifications now however, while retardation is still recognized as a medical condition and is also used as an insult.

    Bottom line, every DD person I know who is capable of expressing an opinion on the matter doesn’t like the word retard in its many forms. I’ll go with their preference.

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