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The R-Word

Have you ever used, thought about using, or heard someone use the word “retarded?”

Currently, one in five Americans, or 20 percent of the population, has a mental or physical disability. Twenty million families, or 30 percent of families of the population, have a member living with a disability. Additionally, there are millions of other people, like me, who know and have befriended someone with a disability. All of these people are affected when the word “retarded” is used. As an active participant in Yachad, an organization which services individuals with disabilities by maximizing their inclusion in society, I have grown more sensitive to the word each time I have heard it used with a negative connotation. Last year, the Special Olympics started a campaign called “Spread The Word To End The Word,” which encourages people to pledge not to use the word ‘retarded’. While some may think this is not remotely important enough to warrant a national campaign, I found it long overdue.

The word ‘retarded’ is currently used in two contexts, the first of which is used to classify someone with an intellectual or developmental disability. The word was initially used in this context in 1895, replacing terms deemed derogatory such as “feeble-minded” and “imbecile.” It was integrated into the special educational system and psychiatrists began using the term as a diagnosis. Therefore, until recently, the word was considered inoffensive clinical terminology. I have no objections to the use of the word in this context. I do not decide what is ‘politically correct’ or how the language of diagnoses shifts. In fact, I see a danger in switching the clinical term so often (from mentally disabled to special needs to developmentally delayed), as it causes people to become afraid to open their mouths and use the wrong term.

However, today the word retarded is also being used in vernacular as slang, as in “that’s so retarded” or “you’re a retard,” and to this I do object. Throughout history, this word has been linked to individuals with disabilities, and therefore using the word ‘retarded’ subtly implies something about this population. This begs the question: is the word used to relate to all the positive attributes of people with disabilities, such as their resiliency to all of the struggles life throws at them? Or is it used to relate to the negative attributes, such as the fact that these people process life at slower rates than the average person? Unfortunately it’s always the latter. When a person uses the word “retarded,” that person is expressing negativity and distaste towards something. He or she is implying that that thing, person, or activity is undesirable—something you wouldn’t want to be your own. And thus that person is implying all of this about people with disabilities as well. As Mr. John Franklin Stephens, the global messenger of the Special Olympics, who has Down Syndrome puts it, “So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are someone that is not your kind.” Words have meanings, and when the word ‘retarded’ is used, a specific group of people is associated with a meaning that intends to demoralize and degrade. It is also assumed that the listener will understand that being linked to someone with disabilities is demoralizing and degrading, and therefore the stereotype that ‘having disabilities is substandard’ is reinforced.

For the past two summers, I was fortunate enough to be a counselor on a program called Yad B’Yad, which is unique in that it takes mainstream high school students, as well as individuals with mental disabilities, on a completely inclusive month-long touring experience of Israel. Over the course of the trip, I became friends with a girl named Pnina. She has Down Syndrome and is also one of the most spirited, charismatic and insightful people that I know.

One afternoon, I was sitting with Pnina and a group of other high school students. We were discussing how the trip was fairly expensive for participants, when one of the ‘mainstream’ high schoolers absentmindedly said, “I can’t believe it. It’s so retarded.” At that moment, all of the training I had experienced and skills I had learned in order to be a good counselor failed me. I felt so incredibly awkward that I had no idea what to say or do. I hesitantly turned to Pnina and saw the shock and hurt on her face and expected her to start crying. But instead, she surprised me and said calmly and more maturely than I ever could have, “Is that what you think of me?” The demeaning nature of the word connotes that someone like Pnina would not be able to comprehend the negative implications, but such an insightful and quick witted response demonstrates a contrast to those exact insinuations. Every time the term is used it becomes normalized; it is implied that it is acceptable to think of people with disabilities as ‘less’ than you and to keep them on the outside—it’s not.

The use of the word “retarded” is a form of hate speech. Similar to saying that something is “gay” when one means to say foolish or ridiculous, using the word retarded when one means to degrade is using the word as a pejorative and a hateful minority slur.  A common objection to this argument is the claim that first amendment rights, as well as freedom of speech, protect the usage of the word. In response, I do not support an outright ban of the word. If one day the term becomes used to describe a positive feature of individuals with disabilities or even if it stays negative, it one day becomes disassociated with them all together, I say it should then be used it to its fullest capacity. But for now, it is hurtful and insulting to a group of people. If we want to describe something that is uncool or undesirable, why not use those exact words? I am calling for sensitivity. Let’s start putting thought into the things that we say, and meaning the words that we use, because as we work to make the world a more inclusive place, using the word retarded stunts the very growth and progress for which we strive.