Confession: On not using That Word.

By | June 14, 2011

Still from Welcome to the Dollhouse, showing Dawn's ramshackle "Special People Club" clubhouse.

The mess in the backyard.

In the seventh grade, I had a friend named Janine* who uttered the word “retarded” approximately every thirty seconds while she was awake. Kids at that age are terrible people — at least I was terrible and everyone I knew was terrible — and so Janine was really no worse than the rest of us, even if her odd verbal tic was particularly annoying. In Janine’s world, everything was retarded. Everything. Her shoes were retarded. Our math homework was retarded. This tater tot was retarded. The tree that dripped shit-colored liquid from seed pods after a torrential Florida downpour on a spring afternoon… was likewise retarded.

Lots of kids hook onto certain words as go-to expressions. Even as an adult, whenever I am nervous or distracted, I am known to nod repetitively and murmur “excellent” quietly to myself, over and over again, as if possessed by Professor Moriarty, or Mr. Burns. I don’t know why Janine loved “retarded” so much; likely there was no reason. Eventually she invented a shortened version — “ree-ree” — spoken in a nasal whine high in the back of the throat, as if issued from a crueler incarnation of Pee-Wee Herman. Only those of us who knew Janine knew that “ree-ree” was short for “retarded”, and she used both words interchangeably, all of the time.

It was via my annoyance with Janine that I grew to despise “retarded” myself. At that age, we had some vague concept that the word was used as a slur to describe certain people with certain disabilities, but it never really registered that our use of the word could have anything to do with those kids having a rough time. From first grade through seventh, I was compelled to take special speech classes once a week. (I had big problems with R, S, and SH sounds. Still do.) For a couple of years, one of my speech-class compatriots was a kid named Chris, who had some unknown-to-me cognitive disability, of which his speech issues were but a small part. When first we began the classes together, he was a nice kid, kind, extremely physically affectionate (uncomfortably so for me, who did not like to be touched), eager to like people and to be liked in return. He had none of our studied proto-adolescent guile; he didn’t know how to operate within the circles that the neurotypical kids traveled. In earlier grades this did not bother him, but as we all crept toward our teens his kindness faded and his explosive hugs turned to violent outbursts.

We wouldn’t necessarily have labeled him as “retarded” — we had the tacit understanding that using the word as casual slang was different from calling it as a name to someone for whom the word might do a real injury — but we would have regarded him as broken, and frightening in his unpredictability. As a child (and, to a slightly lesser degree, as an adult) who responded with extreme anxiety to sudden loud noises, I was always terrified of Chris, even in his nicer era, as he was prone to sudden fits of shouting — joyful or otherwise — that sent me into trembles of fear. I cultivated a near-constant anger at him for scaring me, even without meaning to. But I never called him names and I tried to be nice to him at the urging of our speech teacher.

By seventh grade I was watching Chris’ behavior spiral out of control, his fall accompanied by the vivid symphony of teasing from square-jawed mean boys who called him faggot and idiot, and all the while I listened to Janine call everything she saw “retarded”. I never connected the events. Why would I? There was no direct connection. Janine’s obsessive repetition did not cause the boys to tease Chris, though both events stemmed from a social environment in which being like Chris was considered to be a bad thing.

It would be nice if I could say that I stopped using the word “retarded” because I had an epiphany of social conscience, but I didn’t — I was just sick to fucking death of hearing Janine say the word. She sounded unbearably foolish going on about “ree-ree” this and “ree-ree” that, and her total lack of self-awareness on the matter disgusted me to the extent that I had elaborate fantasies of stabbing her in the neck with my pencil where she sat behind me endlessly mumbling, “This is sooooooo retaaaaarded!” in our science class.

Chris changed schools halfway through the seventh grade; I don’t know where he went. He was just gone. Janine kept saying “retarded” and to this day whenever I hear someone use the word I see her face in my head and have to crush the urge to scream at them to shut the fuck up. These days so many of us feel compelled to scrub our vocabularies shiny-clean of all potentially-objectionable terms; with “retarded”, I never had to re-train myself not to say it, never had to guard against slip-ups. I don’t slip because it’s a word I’ve not used since I was twelve. I could tell you that I don’t slip because the word is hateful and cruel, and this is true, but I really don’t slip because I can’t bear the idea of ever sounding like Janine, my aversion born not of an adult social  consciousness, but from a preteen loathing of a terrifically annoying peer.

I am better than the terrible person I was in the seventh grade, even if I am not thoroughly a good person, not yet, though I am trying to be one. Does it matter why I don’t say the word, so long as I do not say it? I’m not sure. Mightn’t it be better if I were actively fighting the word in myself, all of the time? Fighting my own use of this word would keep its origins and meanings fresh in my mind; it would keep my thoughts directed at the systematic marginalization of people with cognitive disabilities, instead of recalling Janine, like a parrot, repeating “ree-ree” in her curious throaty cartoonish voice.

Part of me thinks that if I had relied on the word as slang, and then been forced to give it up, that experience would make me a better activist, and a kinder human — regardless of whether I still had moments of forgetfulness and negligence in which “retarded” would periodically slide out of my mouth like a forked tongue betraying my lack of self-mastery, an energetic reminder of all the work left to do, on myself, and on the world. There is value in the trying, maybe greater than in the achievement, and at this stage of my life, I believe that the trying is where we benefit most, even when we fail.

*Names have been changed.


37 Comments

thirtiesgirl on June 14, 2011 at 9:42 am.

The word “retarded” is still used as a designation for students in the LA public school system who are developmentally challenged. The “official” abbreviation is MR – “mentally retarded” – a term my co-workers and I still use to describe these students, for lack of having a better term, although I usually refer to them as “CBI” students, preferring it to “MR.”. “CBI” – “Career-Based Instruction” – is the name of the program that many of our “MR” and “Aut” (autistic, low functioning) students are part of, participating in social- and job-skills developing classes and going out into the community to volunteer and further develop their skills.

Every few years or so, though, some official terms within the school system change, become more p.c., more descriptive, or less, as the case may be. I keep hoping that my school district will come up with a new term for our developmentally challenged students other than “MR.” “DC,” maybe? Developmentally challenged? …I don’t know. Sometimes I’m not sure there is a ‘best way’ to describe those particular challenges.

Reply

Marcia on June 14, 2011 at 10:22 am.

How about developmentally delayed (DD)? That’s what we use in Mass.

Reply

RosieY on June 15, 2011 at 7:36 am.

Developmentally Disabled is an umbrella term which includes individuals diagnosed with Mental Retardation, Cerebral Palsy, Autistic-Spectrum disorders, and a host of genetic/chromosomal disorders.

Reply

bonewhiteglory on June 14, 2011 at 11:14 am.

Come on Leslie, there’s more of a connection between Janine’s re-re parroting and the guys calling Chris faggot and idiot than you’re suggesting. I think it’s probable that they were calling other burdensome people fags, and their behavior might be driven by whatever impulse was making Janine repeat retarded constantly.

In my own middle and high school the offensive word drafted as a general adjective to signify dislike and annoyance was gay. Almost the entire student body was repeating the word constantly for like 6 years (and probably before and after I observed this). Everything and everybody was either gay or fucking gay, and this was even coming out of the mouths of the self-identified gay people. I guess it was a little tribute to the self-loathing they were dealing with at the time. My brother was basically the only person among the gays whom I was observing that ever said “I’m tired of hearing that everything bad or not cool is gay.”

Maybe the other LGBT were choosing to own the word, but the modern meaning of “gay” and all it’s insinuation had been a bit perverted by the hyper-casual nature in which it was being used. South Park did a “nice” episode called the F word about the phenomenon in the light that this should be welcomed since in many cases these offensive words had a previous offensive meaning and/or inoffensive meaning. In the case of “retarded,” the verb retard has a meaning of being held back in school. That definition doesn’t really fit at all anymore all of the people who can fit under the “retarded” umbrella, so maybe they should just let that one go, along with idiot and all the other words that suggest they have an inability to learn. They should do that to have some tranquility already, because unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a foreseeable shortage in 7th graders who repeat bad words over and over.

All name-calling is essentially the same at it’s root, and it stems from people’s inability to suppress negative emotions and trying to single out someone they deem inferior and squashing their self-esteem to inflate their own. It’s classic, really. When people have these verbal tics, they get overcome with a certain emotion (frustration, resentment, etc.) and start repeating their catchphrase because they can’t think of a more appropriate word. I think people of that age and older people with verbal ticks should ameliorate their vocabulary. And maybe stop getting stoned before class so they can think a little harder. But the rest of us have to keep on ignoring their bad behavior and being nice to people we hate, since that’s what makes us “good people.”

Reply

Arwen on June 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm.

Not to be too picky when your overall point is spot on, but I’ve family who work primarily with those with Down’s Syndrome and as far as insurance goes, ‘mental retardation’ is a DSM category irrespective of underlying cause and is diagnostically measured by IQ rather than schoolwork!

Before sneering jibes got at the term, it once was the “intellectually delayed” of its time. Which is why it’s probably still being “officially” used in some places. The DSM hasn’t reevaluated terms.

But going a step in, to your point about finding the inferior: “retard” can carry connotation of delay by outside force (like fire retardant). I think the connotation of delay-agent here is intended to be pathology, which is why it’s in a diagnostic category. But that bears thinking about! Most stereotype challenging activisms come from the sense of an expanded human “normal”, where white/male/straight/slender/hearing/able-bodied/neurotypical isn’t the Platonic human form. Of course those with struggle need care & resources, which is where the diagnostic categories come in at all… but it probably is good to talk about the range of normal there is, and challenge the person-as-pathology that happens with those who struggle with society as it is.

When individuality is wiped out by diagnosis, there’s a problem.

Reply

GR on June 17, 2011 at 12:40 pm.

@Arwen – Yeah, I remember vividly that nasty use of “gay” in eighth grade (hmm, think that sort of climate had something to do with my shitty self-esteem and not coming out til I was in my late 20s?). And I’ve heard people using it that way recently, perhaps trying for some facetious, faux-middle-school tone, but I’m with Joe Jackson: “don’t call me a faggot unless you are a friend.” Similarly, I’ve heard “pussy” used as the fauxhemian negative-of-choice, and managed to enrage at least one young man who referred to a “pussy neighborhood”(!) – by telling him he was being misogynist.

Reply

GR on June 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm.

Ooops, sorry, that should be @bonewhiteglory.

Reply

Mags on June 14, 2011 at 11:21 am.

A lot of very diverse people get thrown together under the “special” label or its equivalent. I think part of our struggle with terminology comes from trying to find a collective name for a group of people that is really extremely diverse. The term “developmentally delayed” strikes me as problematic because it implies that there is some trajectory of development that we are all supposed to be on. It reminds me of the word “overweight”, which only makes sense if we assume that there is some weight everyone is supposed to be. I know there are some basic skills that everyone needs for human flourishing — communication, mobility, etc. — but these do not come about the same way for everyone. I wish we had terminology that moved beyond the idea of people with mental “disabilities” being seen as failed attempts at “normal” people. Does this make any sense? Anyway, thanks for a great post and interesting comments too!

Reply

Arwen on June 14, 2011 at 12:43 pm.

Or, what Mags said.

Reply

Emerald on June 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm.

Mags has a great point – the terms we use do suggest there’s a fixed ‘normal’ to which some people aren’t conforming, when the reality of human life (in lots of areas – intelligence and ability, body size, gender, sexuality, the whole caboodle) is that it’s much more complicated than that.

Retarded has never been common where I am in the UK, in the medical or the insult sense – it may be catching on now thanks to its use in US TV shows, I don’t know. But when I was at school, the term used in much the same way as the R word was spastic or variants thereof. I spent a few months in a remedial class at age 6 or so – long story- and when I returned to ‘normal’ classes, I was blacklisted by my peers as having been in ‘the spastics’ class’. (There were kids in that class who did fit the medical definition of the term at the time – cerebral palsy and similar conditions – but trust me, that wasn’t how the rest of the school meant it.) The Spastics’ Society, the charity which used to work for people with CP et al, cottoned on to the derogatory use of the word sometime in the 80s, I think, and changed their name to Scope…but apparently some kids then took up the term scopey instead.

Language changes very quickly in these contexts – moron, idiot, imbecile, cretin, all not so long ago used to have very definite medical meanings, yet most people use them these days to describe (say) a careless fellow driver without even thinking.

For me the tricky ‘insult’ words are the ones to do with mental health – like mad or loopy. As someone who’s suffered from depression, and spent time around other people who’ve had or have various mental health issues, I find there’s a wide range of attitudes to the use of such terms. Some people aren’t bothered, some find them derogatory, and some, as in Mad Pride, have made an attempt to reclaim them. But the world in general uses them so often that they’ve permeated my own language, so they’re the ones I find myself watching out for.

Reply

Cattitude on June 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm.

I think part of the problem here is that no matter what word we choose, they all become loaded over time. Whether that’s due to kids turning the word into an insult or the negative attachments a word forms because of what it symbolizes in people’s minds, humans have a tendency to assign values and weight to words. Ultimately, nearly any word can become offensive, inappropriate, and derogatory.. which means we should be as much or more on the lookout for the feelings and intent that lead us to choose the words we use.

Reply

Twistie on June 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm.

This. So much this.

Reply

Ruth on June 22, 2011 at 9:42 am.

I guess this is the perfect comment on language- words do not in themselves mean anything, they are simply noises that we agree have a specific meaning. Therefore they are infinitely flexible.
Everything and anything can be an insult.

Reply

Luthien on June 14, 2011 at 7:25 pm.

I agree with Cattitude in that the problem is not so much that we’re using a horribly offensive word to describe mental capacity, but that a potentially value neutral word has taken on such derogatory connotations. Plenty of words (fat, gay, short) are stigmatized and used as insults, yet we continue to use them appropriately without issue. For some reason, with “retarded”, we fight the word itself more than the stigma, which is part of the problem. It may not be the most accurate or helpful term, but this attitude teaches children only that certain words are taboo, rather than communicating what we’re really doing when we attach stigma to words that describe real and valuable people. In some ways we’ve come to regard “retarded” with the same knee-jerk opposition we have for profanity– there’s no real reason why it’s bad, it just is. I do believe we could benefit from more accurate and fair vocabulary in this area, but the real problem is how we treat the word. Instead of labeling “retarded” as a bad word and walking away, we should be talking about what we’re actually doing when we use a word that describes a certain person as an insult, and why that’s damaging.

Reply

Daniel on June 14, 2011 at 10:01 pm.

This is a challenging one for me. There was a period a few years ago when I was jokingly using “retarded” a lot. So were a lot of comics I love, including Jon Stewart. And this despite the fact that I remember being outraged by the use of it in grade school, as well as the accompanying voice and hand gesture, and thinking the kids who used it were marked as the worst people! (We definitely had our Janines) What changed? I think the fact that I didn’t hear it as a genuine hurtful insult for many years, and then hearing it again, so that it carried not only the meaning of “dumb” but the childish schoolyard association, so additionally demeaning (and silly) – like “butthole”. I would have never in a million years used it to refer to the reality of cognitive disability, and I felt like as a word from the grade school past there was a “wall” that stopped it from being offensive in the present day.

Of course I have since heard a lot of messages that this is not the case. There are good arguments that it is offensive in the same way as other words that I wouldn’t use, even in a joke, even among friends. I have stopped using it, but I have to make a confession that its true status for me is probably “on probation” – I am still resisting the idea that it is to be erased from my vocabulary. I have a strong value on language that is lively, rude, and funny, and hate to lose an insult (I would put up a real fight for “nuts”, “crazy”, “stupid”, “idiot”, “moron”, etc especially when applied to [insert political figure of your choice]) Not as strong a value as not hurting a whole class of people, but not nothing either.

Reply

Katie on June 15, 2011 at 1:35 pm.

I used to kind of think the way you did about using the word- that it’s original meaning as changed over time and that no one would actually use that word to describe someone with a real developmental delay. But knowing that it is still used “professionally” did change my opinion.
When I was growing up EVERYONE used this word and no one told us not to. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that people really did not respond well to it. I am embarressed for all the times I did use it and no one told me to stop, but probably silently judged me or wrote me off.
When I hear it used now, I cringe. Not because I am personally offended but because I know that people are, and that adults reallyshould know better. I have a co-worker that sits near me and she seems to use the word about as often as “Janine” did.
I accidentally used the word just a few weeks ago in an argument with my husband. It was weird to me that it slipped out because it is not part of my vocabulary and I have not used it in at least a decade. I was ashamed and surprised that it came out so easily.

Reply

GR on June 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm.

My rule is: don’t use a word unless it can be applied to you. If black people want to use the N word, it’s their call as individuals, but as a white person, I don’t get to use it. I get to use the word dyke, but unless you’re one too, you don’t. Et cetera.

Reply

Mulberry on June 14, 2011 at 10:05 pm.

Cattitude, that’s it exactly. It’s a good reason for reclaiming the original word. Euphemisms eventually become tainted by association – look what’s happened to euphemisms for “fat”.

Reply

E. Ai B. on June 14, 2011 at 11:28 pm.

Sorry. I would never call anyone who was altered on a developmental or biological sort of scale “retarded”.

I 100% support the Lewis Black method of using the word though.

If you were born with ALL of your mental faculties-and you choose NOT to use them. You are retarded. STOP IT!

Maybe it’s b/c I write. But no single word has any severe power over me or my world (or…anyone else’s?)

Reply

RosieY on June 15, 2011 at 7:53 am.

As other commenters have pointed out, Mental Retardation is the official name of a diagnosis in the DSM-IV-RT (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders – 4th Edition – Text Revision).

Due to the deeply embedded derogatory connotations the word “retardation” has acquired, the Amercian Psychiatric Association proposes to revise this category of disorders in the next (5th) edition of the DSM. “Mental Retardation” will be replaced by “Intellectual Disability Disorder.” Another big change is that IQ scores will no longer be a criterion for diagnosis.

Please keep in mind that, just as it is offensive to call someone who has been diagnosed with MR “retarded,” it is equally disrespectful to call someone diagnosed with schizophrenia “schizophrenic,” or someone diagnosed with bulimia nervosa “bulimic.”

You will hear mental health professionals use the terms above, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

People are individuals, and their identities are not defined by any disorder they may suffer from. Labels (“retard,” “schizo,” “anorexic”) are an insidious way of discounting the complex & multi-dimensional truth of personhood.

Reply

Ruth on June 22, 2011 at 9:46 am.

Isn’t it appropriate for medical professionals to use for example “person with bulimia”/ “person with mental retardation”? I can see how “bulimic” and “retarded” are problematic but shouldn’t use be considered? Your doctor isn’t trying to insult your child when they call them mentally retarded, they are trying to describe their condition. Using umbrella terms that fortunately haven’t aquired the same negative connotations can be at the expense of accuracy and specificity.

Reply

Jeanette on June 15, 2011 at 10:50 am.

I love this post, you know I do. I love it because any talk of language policing, intentionally mindful or not, gets me going like a red hot in an ice cream sundae. Love it. And I love the way that we use semiotics, etymology and linguistics each to attract or discourage the use of a word on pop culture.

What bothers me is that so often our good activist points ™ come from doing this; policing our language and being mindful each day of not using certain words. Scrubbing our language clean, as you say. But we stop there. We forget that language is fluid and dependent on individual interpretation. We forget that there are more powerful things in life than the oppression of individuals with labels. We forget that we can still support institutionalized oppression through our actions, our inhabiting of space, etc. And we then feel really good about not using X to describe Y, but we definitely aren’t interested in taking Y serious, making space and incorporating Y at our events, etc.

To the folks above wondering about what term to use for MR or DD folk, I wonder why? Why did this post spark a desire to talk about the identifiers used in public school systems for students with disabilities? That continues a conversation of Othered bodies (students) and Us (educators, adults) instead of disability and able-bodied folks interacting in society at large. Remember, children grow up and live near you, work alongside you, shop at the same places you do. In fact sometimes they respond to a blog post.

So what’s important, language or how we think/talk/act/do around disability?

Reply

Lesley on June 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm.

I love you SO MUCH. Someday I hope to be as smart as you.

Reply

Jeanette on June 15, 2011 at 9:34 pm.

:P

Reply

thirtiesgirl on June 15, 2011 at 10:20 pm.

My comment came from a place of wondering about language, NOT because I’m trying to separate myself from people who might fall under the “MR” designation. To clarify: “MR” is an officially designated term in the school district where I work, and I have issues with the “R” part of that designation, similar to the issues that Lesley expressed in her post. But I don’t know of a different/better(?) word that more accurately describes people, whether they’re my students or people I encounter outside the school setting, who fall under the “MR” designation. As others have written here, according to the DSM, “retarded” is the correct term for the diagnosis, which is the basis for my question about the term. Even though it’s the “correct” term, I still feel uncomfortable using it. If someone who falls under that designation in the DSM would like to share the term they prefer with me, whether it’s “MR,” or something of their own choosing, I’ll happily use it in my vocabulary.

Reply

Flo on June 15, 2011 at 12:34 pm.

One of my best friends in elementary school (and still) has an older sister who is “mentally retarded” (in the DSM sense) and as kids my friend was fiercely protective of her. Her sister never went to our school and so most kids actually had no idea of this fact, however, if you used retarded as either a slur or a casual term for something bad around her you were likely to get at least a long angry speech, if not a punch in the stomach. By the time we reached middle school she had successfully stopped pretty much everyone I knew from used the word. When I went away to college I remember being shocked by the fact that everyone used it, all the time. I have this visceral reaction to it that goes something along the lines of ‘that hurts my friend, so it hurts me,’ but it took years for me to be able to bring it up with even my good friends in college, and it is still used all the time by kids at the elementary school where I work in a way that often leaves me feeling overwhelmed or powerless to change things.

Reply

Caroline on June 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm.

I do still occasionally use retarded, though I am trying not to now. Unlike words such as gay, or crazy which have a common usage and definitely shouldn’t be used as insults – particularly “that’s so gay!” as a general bad thing to be, which infuriates me – I’ve never actually heard anyone use the word retarded as a serious word. It amazes me that it is still being used as a medical definition in the US! I would perhaps use the term intellectually disabled instead? Maybe this is because I’m from New Zealand and we don’t use the term retarded here – or at least not they I have heard in my lifetime.

As someone mentioned above, the word spastic – very common. Haven’t used it since I was a kid and didn’t know better, but boy does it infuriate me now. There is a lot of complicated stuff wrapped up in that word to me. Huh, I guess I should just think of “retarded”, the way I do “spastic” and I would have no trouble stopping in my use of it.

Reply

Katie on June 15, 2011 at 9:48 pm.

So I guess here is my other confession. Until I read these comments I had no idea that my very liberal use of the word “spazz” was so offensive. I mean I know it isn’t a compliment, but I had no clue it had anything to do with a specific condition. I will take care not to use it from now on.

Reply

Daniel on June 15, 2011 at 9:33 pm.

Some of these comments are making me think of the “euphemism treadmill”, and about the terms that I heard used by my generation of school children as mocking insults: special, special needs, challenged – as in “are you *challenged*?” That kind of thing makes it seem a bit futile, like children spontaneously invent the idea of using cognitive disabilities as insults, but I think children do listen very carefully to the way language is used around them even when it seems like they don’t, and that patterns of bullying are very much influenced by the attitudes of the adults.

Reply

kbryna on June 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm.

I teach undergrads english lit, and very often in class discussions, someone will say “I just thought this book was totally gay.” Because I am HYPER-queer-aware, I say – straightfaced and sincerely, because actually, some books ARE totally gay in the LGBTQ way – “Do you mean it has homosexual under- or overtones?”
A couple of years ago, I got it together with “retarded,” a word my parents forced out of my vocabulary sometime around middle school, and I call students out when they say “that character was just completely retarded.” My masking-policing-of-language argument is that those words aren’t precise: when discussing a text, I want precision! not vague insults like “retarded.”
As kids in New York State, we used the word “boces” (pronounced bo-sees) for the kids in the special classroom – after BOCES, or board of cooperative educational services, the state board responsible for special ed. “Boce” could also operate as a singular, as in “it’s just so boce.” This weird circumvention of “retarded” intrigues, amuses and baffles me now – amuse because it’s such an uninformed appropriation of a word (acronym) that we heard but didn’t understand except that it referred to the kids in the BOCES room. and of course, if you were in the BOCES room, you must be a boce. right???

I have found recently that my efforts to NEVER use “retarded” have turned it into an uber-insult – this is a bad, a very, very bad, thing. When I’ve reached my limit, when I’m searching for the VERY WORST thing I can say, I have found myself bursting out with “It’s just so RETARDED!!!!”
NOT because I think any of the many things that fall under the “clinical” term retarded are so bad – but because I have made that *word* so bad. It’s a no-go word, one that shouldn’t be said – so when I need a powerful invective, that one – by virtue of its rare use – floats to the top.

This is kind of an appalling bit of language blowback, in my opinion. And I work on it. But I don’t think that makes me any more of an activist – or less of one – than Lesley, or anyone else who refrains from using offensive language for reasons other than political ones.

Reply

KJ on June 16, 2011 at 4:14 pm.

I too had speech classes and suffer from a bilateral speech impediment. I learned to fool people and talk “around” it but when I talk fast or am uneasy all hell breaks loose.

I had 3 brothers who were developmentally disabled (I don’t use the word retarded) and grew up practically beating up anyone who messed with them or called them names. Then I worked with the D.D. community here and was (still am) appalled at the way people with developmental disabilities are treated.

It goes from the extreme of molly coddling and not expecting ANYTHING from them to absolutely neglecting them and leaving them to their destructive behavior.

Its a shame that those who are at most risk for abuse and neglect are treated with such disrespect after all these years.

Reply

Anna Banana on June 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm.

I used to beat up kids who used the word “gay” as a slur or negative, because my brother was gay. In my mind the reason I thought saying “gay” was wrong was because there was nothing wrong with being gay. However, in my middle school (okay who am I kidding high school and early college) logic justified using retarded as a slur because I thought there WAS something wrong with being retarded. I never thought that people with mental disabilities were lesser people, or that they were to blame or anything like that. I just there is something fundamentally wrong with someone who has a disability. Now, I am just out of college, and I realize that this is utter bullshit- logically. But, I still kind of believe it, though I’m ashamed of it. I’m pretty sure it’s because I don’t know anyone with a disability. It’s never been presented to me as more than an abstract concept. This is true with a lot things, like transsexuality. Sure I’m ashamed that I think this way, but I don’t think I can actually get over these feelings until I know someone from the various groups that I feel kind of iffy towards. And I can’t seek people out and say “Hey, I need to get to know you and you need to teach me disabilities 101″ because not only is it rude, but it’s wrong to assume that just because someone is something they’re willing to teach an idiot like me about it. So, I have a feeling that if I don’t come across these people in a natural setting, I will always feel this way.

Reply

maggie on June 17, 2011 at 10:22 pm.

This is what the internet is for! There are a lot of neurodiversity and blogs/Tumblrs. I’m readin’ and learnin’, and not pestering people to explain things to me. Mostly I follow along with http://fyeahautismspectrum.tumblr.com (obviously autism specific). They have links to other blogs, etc etc.

Reply

maggie on June 17, 2011 at 10:15 pm.

Wow, that story made ME want to stick a fork in her.

Reply

Sandra Larkin on June 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm.

I grew up with an aunt who had Down’s Syndrome, and I was taught that “mentally retarded” was the polite term to use. When my mother was growing up, her little sister was called a “mongoloid.” The phrase “developmentally delayed” is now the appropriate terminology for people with Down’s and other cognitive disabilities. I wonder if twenty years ago, kids will be using “that’s so delayed!” as an insult?

In the same way, as a kid in the 60′s I learned that “Negro” was acceptable, whereas another word starting with N was decidedly not. Then it was Black, or African-American, or Afro-American, and I’m not sure which one is preferable. I find myself using the somewhat awkward phrase “of African descent” simply because the person in question might be African-Canadian, or Jamaican, or Haitian…

I have a deep dislike of using descriptive-yet-stigmatized terms as insults. Both my kids know better than to use “retarded” or “gay” as putdowns. They’ve been told that these words describe people we know and love, and to use them as insults is an insult to people they care about.

But kids are sensitive to stigma, to when some attribute or other is considered “bad” by society, and will always, I think, latch onto these terms and generalize them as insults. I’m not sure this can be changed, except in individual cases. I hope I live to see the day when we find out how to keep middle-school kids from being cruel to one another.

And language continues to evolve–I have learned that using “lame” as a negative descriptor is considered insulting by physically handicapped people, and I’m trying to eradicate it from my vocabulary. I believe very strongly that people have a right to decide what they want to be called, but sometimes it’s hard to know what that is.

Reply

Naomi on July 3, 2011 at 12:11 am.

I’m an education major in MS (you know, the state that is last in everything) and we refer to disabilities as exceptionalities. Didn’t you guys catch the PSA’s from actresses to stamp out the word retarded?

Reply

Jane Call on July 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm.

This is such a great conversation! I’m REALLY interested in the (perhaps inevitable) time when people with intellectual disabilities start developing and reclaiming their labels for themselves, the way fat people, queer people, people of color, people with other disabilities, etc., have done. Does anyone see this happening?

While it’s not always graceful or easy, I seem to like the world and myself better when I listen to people to find out what’s important to them instead of labeling them myself. I may not always appreciate where each person is coming from (for instance, I have an extremely non-self-aware mother whose schizophrenia made my childhood a living hell, and I really choke on a lot of Mad Pride discussions that don’t include the effect of mentally ill people’s behavior on their families and society), but to me it seems like a worthy activity.

Reply

Leave Your Comment

Your email will not be published or shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>