The Power of Words
“Are you retarded?!”
It is hard to express in writing the shock that I had at that moment. The Post-Pesach Program started a few days prior, and there was already a lot going on. I was in a new beit midrash learning a new masechet, surrounded by people who I barely knew. I thought I misheard my friend until I heard him use the word “retarded” again in a colloquial and disparaging fashion. I asked him why he uses that word, which I naturally felt was insensitive. He responded that it is just slang and that whether or not you object to such language is often based on “hashkafa.” Moreover, he said that he spent part of his two years in Israel volunteering for Shalva, a center for people with disabilities, and he therefore rightfully considered himself aware and caring for those with special needs. We then proceeded to debate the topic for over an hour, and the rest of morning seder dwindled away. At the end of the discussion, I was steadfast in my opposition to using such phrases, but my friend, who is a very genuine and caring person, pressed me as to why exactly I am so passionate about the issue. Frankly, I could not come up with a clear and definitive answer.
It had been a couple of years since I last heard the word “retarded” used as a conversational insult. Within my yeshiva’s environment, using phrases like “that’s so retarded” or “that’s so gay” were condemned and considered coarser than the more typical expletives. Consequently, I was surprised when my friend used the word that morning.
However, why does the word “retarded” evoke so much emotion within me? While I consider myself friendly to those with special needs, I have never spent any summers at Camp HASC, nor did I spend more than a few Sundays volunteering for Friendship Circle in high school. Was my reaction dogmatic and based solely on what others proclaimed as wrong? Conversely, moral justifications are often based on intuition and are not easily translatable into words. In other words, perhaps I had too many reasons to articulate a comprehensible defense of my position. However, if true, what were these many reasons? Why should one abstain from using the word “retarded?”
Before seeking answers, though, it is important to determine what exactly the word “retarded” means and what connotations it has. In the past, the word “retarded” was used within the realms of medicine and public policy. According to WebMD, the term “mental retardation,” was clinically used to identify those with “below-average intelligence or mental ability and a lack of skills necessary for day-to-day living.” Additionally, while those who are “mentally retarded” do learn new skills, they do so “more slowly.”
In 2013, though, the Federal Register announced a change in official terminology from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability,” which is understood to be less offensive, and understandably so. For years, the word has been interchangeable with unrefined insults like “dumb,” “stupid” and “idiot.” Although when referring to those with special needs the word “retarded” could be used with all the right intentions and accuracy, since the negative connotation developed from its use elsewhere, there was a demand for change within the medical field.
However, it was not a lack of precision in medical diagnosis that bothered me that morning; rather, it was the use of the word as an insult towards those who specifically do not have special needs. Hence, the question remains: What is so wrong with calling a person without special needs “retarded?”
As mentioned earlier, the term “retarded” has become synonymous with other words like “stupid” or “dumb.” Therefore, it is not simply a certain connotation that has developed — the entire meaning of the word has mutated. Said differently, by calling a “stupid” person “retarded” you are effectively calling a “mentally retarded” person “stupid.” It is unfathomable that anyone would ever go up to one with special needs and call him or her dumb, so why perpetuate this negative mutation of the word “retarded” by uttering it outside of the medical realm?
Furthermore, using the title of a group as an alternative for other insults consistently ostracizes those people from society. For instance, interchanging “weird” and “gay” excludes those who are homosexual and prevents us from maintaining a welcoming atmosphere. So too, when one substitutes “retarded” for “stupid,” they isolate those with mental disabilities from the larger group.
Additionally, as a general rule, it is important for one to utilize his power of speech for good in this world. Akiva Garner YC ‘25 pointed out to me that by the creation of man, Onkelos defines “nefesh chaya” (living being) as “speaking spirit.” One way to understand this is that the essence of man is his ability to speak. Thus, do we utilize our essential quality as human beings with honor? Do we speak respectfully regardless of whether we are hanging out with our friends, interviewing for a company, or speaking with a rabbi? Even if one rejects the premise that the word “retarded” is offensive in some cases, I would still implore every one of us to avoid using unrefined terms and instead express ourselves with dignity.
Seeking a different perspective on the issue, I sat down with one anonymous student, whose brother has special needs. First, he asserted that using the phrase incorrectly generates misconceptions about the intellectually disabled. When asked how he reacts when he hears people use the word “retarded” as a substitute for “stupid,” this student said that it incorrectly assumes that all people with special needs are unintelligent, which is most definitely not true about his brother. “He’s a genius,” he exclaimed. “My brother taught himself how to read!” In other words, although the mentally disabled might be inhibited in some ways or learn slowly in certain areas, there might be areas where they excel or are quick learners.
On a different note, he said that when it comes to joking around or acting frivolously, there are always some topics that should be avoided out of basic sensitivity. More specifically, facetiously using the term “retarded” expresses a lack of empathy and awareness towards the daily difficulties faced by the intellectually disabled and their families. For example, the activities that most people find light can be rigorous and stressful for both those with special needs and their parents. Thus, the term “retarded” should carry with itself a certain seriousness and sympathy towards those involved, similar to how one would use the word “cancer.”
Finally, he emphasizes that while “the Orthodox community struggles with many things, it does not struggle with how it treats special needs kids.” While some people may use the word “retarded,” they are nevertheless great people who “care about kids with special needs and have their hearts in the right places.” Put differently, in many cases, one who uses the word “retarded” is not taking a stance that it is acceptable to say the phrase; rather, he might lack some cognizance of what is at stake.
Through understanding and sympathizing with accounts like that of this student, one can indeed generate a lasting awareness of what it truly means to misuse the word “retarded.” As we are within the months of introspection and self-improvement, it is crucial to recognize the power of our words and what effects they can have on those around us–for better and for worse. Equipped with this consciousness, we will find that our speech does not bring down our communities but rather raises them to greater heights than ever before.
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