Using the word “retarded” casually as an insult is highly offensive. People with developmental delays and other disabilities face many forms of discrimination and abuse, and language like that makes it easier for them to be victimized. Those who use the word not only look stupid, but can really hurt their audience.
“Don’t get retarded with me, answer your phone!”
“Why are you giving me detention, that’s retarded!”
“Those shoes make you look like a retard.”
Day in, and day out, people use the word retarded as an insult. The reality is, every day, people have to live with the medical diagnosis of mental retardation (“Intellectual Disability / Mental,” 2005). They deserve more respect than to be reduced to a disparaging term in the streets, on playgrounds, in offices. They are human beings who are the target of much discrimination, and deserve more respect than what they have been given. To use this word in a derogatory manner can be just as harmful as using the word “gay” as an insult – just ask the mothers of two eleven year old boys how harmful that can be, those two boys in two different states, on two different days, that hung themselves when they were called “gay” over and over again (Blow, 2009).
Every day, people with developmental disabilities are denied many rights and privileges we take for granted. We can choose our chores at home, when we can have visitors or get phone calls. Some in group housing don’t get that luxury, according to Caren Durnst, a supervisor in a group-housing setting. We can chose our own job, and work for a decent wage. Those deemed disabled enough to qualify for certain benefits needed to live independently can only work for limited amounts of money, or they loose their support network; in fact, they aren’t even allowed to have more than meager savings(“SS Resources,” 2009). Those who work in ‘sheltered workshops’ can legally be paid less than minimum wage (Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 2009). They can be put into classrooms isolated from their peers, denied access to classes they might enjoy,and discouraged from real academic pursuits (“Program Criteria: Special,” n.d.). In Bertha, MN, a thirteen year old autistic boy was forbidden by the courts to go to Mass at his local Roman Catholic Church. When his mother got in the car to take him, the county Sheriff met her to tell her that she would be arrested if she took her son to Mass (Pabst, 2008). Perhaps the worst of all, some are denied medical care (U.S. Public Health Service, 2001, p. 28). The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists even has guidelines as to under what circumstances you can sterilize a disabled person (“Sterilization of Women”, 2007 p. 2).
Despite all this, many people with developmental disabilities and cognitive difficulties live full and independent lives. They work, they play, they love, they marry (Kaufman, 1988/1999 ). They do what they can despite their intellectual limitations. So what do you mean when you call something retarded? It works hard? It struggles and tries its best to overcome obstacles? If you call someone a retard does that mean they are someone who works hard in school even without the support they need? Probably not.
The current campaign, “Change the Conversation” (The R-word, n.d.), makes us all too aware how much those who are mentally retarded understand what is meant when it is used as an insult. They have a voice, and they are speaking clearly. If anyone uses the excuse that “they” don’t care if it is used as an insult, “they” do. For people without cognitive difficulties why is it so hard to understand how people with MR (mental retardation) feel about it? When you use a word like this, you objectify people. “Retards” aren’t people anymore. They’re objects. They are no longer human (Special Olympics and the Center for Social Development and Education, Gallup Organization, Research and Evaluation Services of Northern Ireland, & Center for Survey Research, n.d.). It builds up, and gets easier and easier to toss those words around. The less important you think it is, the more affected you’ve been by that word. The less important we all think it is, the easier it is to discriminate and abuse those who are developmentally disabled. It’s easier to deny them a seat in a science class, or not give them a chance in the workplace. Why? Because we’ve reduced the to sub-human level, and do not have to treat them like we’d treat a ‘normal’ person. The more the “r-word” is used, the more degraded they are, and the more acceptable it is to treat them like so much garbage.
Using this kind of language is poor English, period. Those who use that word risk the look of looking uneducated, lower class, cruel, and unsophisticated (Bendersky, 2009 ). Studies show that even children look down upon peers who use the word, even if they are not willing to speak out(Harris Interactive, Special Olympics Global Collaborating Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, & Special Olympics, n.d.). Using those words makes a bad impression. Those words used in the wrong context hurt a lot of people. First of all, the person being called retarded, whether or not they are, knows what the name-caller means by it. Those who are experiencing those disabilities can feel hurt too (The R-word, n.d.) . There is also pain to those who love them, who feel protective of their family and friends. Doesn’t everyone feel protective of those they love? Those that use the word become bullies, picking on those who they perceive as inferior to them. They can only see their privileged world view where the only way to live is as a ‘normal’ person with no disabilities, no problems (Byrne, 2000, pp. 45-72). To them, the only life worth living is one without “being retarded”.
There are plenty of reasons not to use “the R-Word”. Think for a minute of one very simple one. Every time that word is used in front of me, personally, I die a little inside. I am wounded by the words of people who think my son, the light of my life, is a person of less value than anyone else. So please, don’t use words that describe very real people as insults.
Bendersky, A. (2009, April 1). That’s retarded. You’re so gay. Is either ok? Message posted to http://hottopics.gay.com/2009/03/thats-retarded-youre-so-gay-is-either-ok.html Blow, C. M. (2009, April 24).
Two little boys. Message posted to http://blow.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/two-little-boys/
Byrne, P. (2000). Philosophical and ethical problems in mental handicap. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 8 (2009), http://www.dol.gov/elaws/esa/flsa/14c/.
Harris Interactive, Special Olympics Global Collaborating Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston,, & Special Olympics. (n.d.). R-Word campaign [Survey Results]. Retrieved April 23, 2009, from University of Massachusetts, Center for Social Development & Education (CSDE) Web site: http://www.csde.umb.edu/rs_r_word.html
Intellectual disability / mental retardation. (2005, October 29). Developmental disabilities [Article]. Retrieved April 29, 2009, from Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/dd/ddmr.htm
Kaufman, S. Z. (1999). Retarded isn’t stupid, Mom! (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. (Original work published 1988) Pabst, L. (2008, May 19).
After warning, family of autistic teen attends different church. Star Tribune. Retrieved April 29, 2009, from http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/faith/19059069.html
Program criteria: Special class programs, secondary, and vocational rehabilitation. (n.d.). Self-contained special education classes [Criteria for placement]. Retrieved April 25, 2009, from Newark Public Schools Web site: http://www.nps.k12.nj.us/Special%20Education/Training%20Modules/Spe.%20Ed%20Programs/Self%20Contained%20Classes.htm
The r-word [Campaign to end use of “The R-Word”]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2009, from The Special Olympics/ Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation Web site: http://www.r-word.org/
Special Olympics and the Center for Social Development and Education, Gallup Organization, Research and Evaluation Services of Northern Ireland, & Center for Survey Research. (n.d.). Multinational study of attitudes toward individuals with intellectual disabilities [Research results]. Retrieved April 22, 2009, from Special Olympics Web site: http://info.specialolympics.org/Special+Olympics+Public+Website/English/Initiatives/Research/Attitude_Research/Multinational+Study.htm
SS resources. (2009, April 28). Understanding supplemental security income [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved April 29, 2009, from Social Security Administration Web site: http://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-resources-ussi.htm
Sterilization of women, including those with mental disabilities [Monograph]. (2007). ACOG Committee Opinion, (Serial No. 371). U.S. Public Health Service. (2001, February).
Closing the gap : a national blueprint to improve the health of persons with mental retardation (D. Alexander, Ed.). Rockville, MD.