I was going to start this post by saying, the only “retarded” thing in this world is the actual use of that word. But then I figured that would defeat the purpose. So let’s just jump in, shall we?
You probably know by now, that word’s got a bad rep. You’ve probably seen all that stuff on the Internet–Spread the Word to End the Word. But maybe you figured, that’s good, but it doesn’t affect me. Maybe you asked yourself, “Why does it matter, and what can I do?” Or maybe, like I used to, you said, “Yeah, the world would be better without the word ‘retarded,’ but I’m pretty sick of people acting offended about everything, even the words we use. ‘Retarded’ really just means ‘slow,’ right? It’s not the same thing as the N word or any of those other slurs.”
WRONG. I was wrong, and if you think that, you may be having a natural reaction, but you’re also wrong.
First, let’s clear up something. Political correctness in its pure, unadulterated, run-amok form is ridiculous, and I think our country is doing itself a disservice by getting offended at everything (for an example, check out the recent news story on the school system who told a boy named Hunter that he couldn’t use the sign language symbol for his name because the sign resembled a gun pointing. I’ve got another R word for that–RIDICULOUS). To paraphrase a famous comedian, if I wanted to live in a country where nothing ever offended anybody, I’d move. There are plenty of countries with oppressive, totalitarian governments for that kind of thing.
But having said that…
The word “retard” or “retarded” actually is offensive. It’s archaic. And it needs to be elevated–or should that be lowered–to the status of the N word or the C word–as in, we don’t use it, period, except to refer to it by a first initial in the context of explaining that it stinks. Why do I think this? So glad you asked:
According to r-word.org (shout-out to you guys: you ROCK!), there’s a plethora of reasons not to use the R word. Among them:
- It equates intellectual disability with being dumb or stupid–as if “the only characteristic of mentally handicapped individuals is their stupidity.” Well, excuse me, but whoever said these people were stupid? As someone once said, if you can do one thing well, you’re needed by someone. And I believe everyone, even those with intellectual disabilities, can do at least one thing well.
- It fosters loneliness. As athlete Joseph Franklin Stephens put it on r-word.org, it hurts and is scary when you’re the only person with intellectual disabilities around, and people start making “retard” jokes. It singles you out for all the wrong reasons.
- It’s exclusive–people use it to separate “us” from “them,” and to label a whole group of people as something you should never want to be
- It “emphasizes negative stereotypes,” including “the common belief that people with intellectual disabilities should be segregated [and] hidden away from society”. In fact, this is actually the reason I used to use it, but sort of in reverse. As in, I knew those stereotypes and did not want them applied to me. So when somebody did that, my visceral reaction was, “What, you think I’m retarded or something?” But see, that’s still separating out a whole group as “undesirable.” If you know your history at all, you ought to know what can happen when we let ourselves do that, and when it gets out of control.
“But Chick,” you might say, “I say that word all the time. It’s slang–just a word. And the people I use it to describe deserve it, because they’re acting stupid.” Oh, is that so? Well, let’s compare, shall we?
We’ll use that age-old slur, the N word, as our comparison. Not so long ago (before black people actually called each other this, which I think is just sick), to call someone an N meant they were inferior. They had to be relegated to substandard schools, jobs, transportation, or even toilets. And they “deserved” it, people said, because “science proved they were inferior” or because “they’re uppity.”
Now, let’s look at the R word. When you say the R word, you’re really saying: “These are the people I don’t want to be around, be like, or have to interact with. They should be relegated to special ed, institutions, “short buses,” and other segregated settings because they are disruptive. They can’t adapt to our world, so they don’t deserve to live in it. In fact, we’ve got proof–doctors and experts have tests that show, in black and white, that they are inferior in intellectual capacity.”
Not so different, eh?
What hurts the most, I think, is that last statement–the “proof of inferiority” that the medical community and other experts continue to perpetuate, with their standardized tests, their screenings, their scales, and other assorted shtick. That’s the problem. Skin color never had a medical or scientific model that “proved” inferiority, and when people said it did, it could be quickly proven to be bunk, if anyone really listened. But no matter how you slice it, that low IQ score may never change. Those tests do contain black and white proof of what someone can and can’t do. And because the tests are backed by experts, PEOPLE BELIEVE THEM.
Well, so stinkin’ what?
What if that were you? What if somebody summed up your life, your skills, your worth, in a few pages of blurbs and scores, and proclaimed themselves an expert on you and “your kind” because of them? You wouldn’t think it was fair, right? You’d want someone to stand up for you, or better, show you how to do that yourself, successfully. And you certainly wouldn’t want everyone else in the world to coin a word, first used by those experts, and then as a derogatory term, to describe you.
But that’s what we’ve done to people with intellectual disabilities. One two-syllable word strips away their names, their skills, their gifts and talents–their worth. They are reduced to R-E-T-A-R-D, condemned to being seen as unable to function, unwilling to comply, and undesirable to interact with.
If this were the American Civil Rights movement, we’d call that reprehensible. If it were the Holocaust, we’d call it dehumanizing. If this were a women’s rights issue (which, for half of the population with disabilities, it is), we’d call it abusive. So why the casual attitude when we in effect dehumanize and abuse people with intellectual disabilities? Let’s throw out the R word and just say it:
How flipping STUPID is that?
*If you want to join the fight to end the word, feel free to pledge at r-word.org.