It’s Way Past Time to Stop Saying Things Are “Retarded”

User of offensive vocabulary. Image by Gage Skidmore.

In a tweet after the debate Monday night, Ann Coulter referred to President Obama as a “retard.”

I hesitated to write about the incident, because I suspect Coulter makes offensive statements like that in order to drum up media attention, and I certainly don’t want to encourage her. But the fact is that Coulter is not the only person out there still using that word — sometimes, as in this instance, with an intent to insult, and other times out of a kind of stubborn thoughtlessness. “Oh, I don’t mean it like that,” people will say — even people who wouldn’t dream of using other slurs.

When my then-four-year-old son was diagnosed with mental retardation in 2008, I was struck by how strongly people reacted to those words. I wrote at the time:

“Mental retardation” is a label with an awful lot of social baggage, especially for people of my generation. Was there anything more insulting you could call someone in grade school, or be called, than “retard”? And twenty, thirty years later, that slur is causing just as much pain and controversy as it ever did.

Being something of a word person, I was fascinated by the reaction the words got when we told friends and family about the diagnosis. Honestly, I think I had to spend more time talking to people about the terminology than the condition it describes. Even the Wikipedia entry begins with a long discussion of the various terms that have been used and discarded over the years–discarded after common usage coopted a clinical term for use as an insult. First “cretin,” then “idiot” and “imbecile” (indicating differing degrees of cognitive disability), then “moron,” a word invented by doctors in the early 20th century, and when that became a slur like the others, “mentally retarded” came into use.

I learned that the American Association on Mental Retardation renamed itself in 2006: it is now the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and its preferred terminology for mental retardation is now “intellectually disabled.”

I confess that sounds a bit jargony to me. It’s hard to imagine using it in conversation. Also quite a mouthful is the broader term “developmental disability,” which does encompass my boy’s physical and cognitive delays. I am seeing that term used quite a bit online, on special-needs forums and such. I suppose it lacks the emotional baggage of “mentally retarded,” but for us it’s a moot point anyway, because here in Southern California at least, “mental retardation” is still the clinical term in common use: it’s what appears on my son’s charts now, and whenever I walk into a doctor’s office and am asked, as I always am, “what’s his diagnosis,” among the list of medical and developmental terms I must rattle off is, now, mental retardation.

Four years later, I’m hearing “cognitive disability” more often in educational contexts, and “mental retardation” is still what the medical records say, with a gradual shift toward “ID.” I got used to the terms — in any event, there isn’t actually that much occasion to use them. I don’t look at my son and think a label. He is who he is: a good reader, a total sweetheart, a loving big brother, an affectionate little brother, a kid who loves clocks and calendars, a fan of Calvin & Hobbes, an iPad whiz. His brain works differently than is the norm (although “the norm” is mighty hard to pin down). Abstract concepts sometimes baffle him, but he certainly knows an insult when he hears one.

And all over the internet, in movies, and at the playground, people are still using “retarded” and “retard” in disparaging or eye-rolling ways. It’s time to stop. Way past time. I’ve heard some parents express a sense of helplessness over the subject — they don’t like that their kids say, “That is soooo retarded,” but the kids pick it up at school; what can you do?

You can talk about it. Call them on it. Let them know that it’s an unkind, insulting usage of a medical term, a slur that hurts people. There are other hurtful words, other slurs, that you wouldn’t dream of letting your kids use without a hasty and urgent intervention. “Retard” should be one of them.

In an open letter to Ann Coulter, Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens addresses the insult:

John Franklin Stephens
John Franklin Stephens. Image source:

After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.  You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.
I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash.

Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.

No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.

At Ethoshift, Matt Chambers recalls the power and sting of lines like “What are you? Some kind of retard?” in his youth:

Retard, retarded, “What’s your brain damage?”, and the always effective Special Olympics and short bus jokes. (I’m sure you can think of others as well).

They always worked. They were hilarious. There was no comeback once you accused someone of having a mental deficiency.

And then he grew up.

As I matured, I discovered that words are far more powerful than I ever imagined, and especially words that make light of a huge population of people around the world who aren’t often able to defend themselves.

This morning, I actually put my six-year-old son, Jude, on the short bus. He’s mentally handicapped due to a seizure and genetic disorder.

He’s the kind of kid I used to think of when I wanted to humiliate someone else…and now he’s my son…and I’m his daddy…and when politicians, celebrities, or other public figures throw it around to make a point or put down someone else, I think it’s only proper to remind them of this:

You have millions of people hanging on your every word. When you are careless (or purposeful) in using language that you’re fully aware will hurt, alienate, and divide, you’re giving permission for others to do the same thing.

Exactly. Coulter’s use of the word disgusted me but didn’t shock me, coming from her — she’s used it before; it’s clear she takes relish in being hurtful in that manner. And since her behavior doesn’t seem to affect her invitations to appear on television, it’s likely she’ll keep on doing it. Marlee Matlin put it succinctly:

No, what did shock me was seeing how many people had favorited Coulter’s tweet. Almost 1500, last time I looked. (As Matt Chambers notes, it was retweeted over 3,500 times as well, but a great many of those had appalled reactions attached.) And on Facebook, Twitter, and in comboxes, I’ve seen people dig in and defend their use of the words “retard” and “retarded” (especially the latter), or shrug off the “big deal” others are making.

Well, it is a big deal, and it’s worth a conversation. Human decency always is.

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