Just Stop It

Ellen wrote a post that went viral recently about what happens when you ask people to stop using the words “retarded” and “retard.” She wasn’t over-dramatic or emotional in her quest, but many of the responses were. One of the things that interested me the most was the vast number of people who defended their use of the words–despite being told that it was offensive.

The word retarded started off innocently enough–it’s main function is/was to describe someone with below average intelligence. But somewhere along the line everyone decided they were a doctor and started calling pretty much anything retarded–a friend, a dog, or a store with an obnoxious return policy. As the word became common one thing was clear–it was no compliment. While we can all agree that it would be in poor form to insult someone who had a condition like cancer or muscular dystrophy, but for some reason we think it’s OK to mock those whose disabilities affect the mind. Retarded is no longer a clinical term, but slang for stupid, ridiculous, loser, and worthless.

I do believe getting these words out of your vocabulary is a process. I know I used these terms plenty before I knew that they hurt people.  I’m not taking issue with people who don’t know, but I’d like to argue back for a minute with all the people who defend their right to use the words when they’ve been told that they’re hurtful.

boy laughing into his father's shoulder

Enjoying marching bands at a parade

Some people cite freedom of speech when they use the word. Fair enough, free speech is a vital part of our democracy and one of the things Americans hold most near and dear. Censorship is bad–I completely agree. But just because you CAN say a word, doesn’t mean you should. I mean, I could wear a string bikini, but I’m not about to do that to the world. The law gives me the right to print naked pictures of myself, refuse medical treatment, and ride in the back of the pick up truck on the interstate. Still, not gonna do it. Choice is also a critical component to our democracy.

Some people claim that we’re eliminating too  many words–that soon there will be nothing left. It is estimated that there are a quarter of a million words in the English language. If you are unable to come up with anything besides retard and retarded then I would suggest that maybe you are not in a position to question the intelligence of others. Just a thought.

Then there’s the crowd that claims, “if I’m using the word in the right context, I think it’s fine.” Now, as someone who was actually required to use the term “retarded” on the job, I can assure you can we never once handled it as callously and casually as I hear people using it. We usually abbreviated it when in use around colleagues.  I was also aware that I, as a teacher, did not have the right to label someone “retarded”–that was a medical diagnosis required by a doctor. And while this is a valid, medical diagnosis, when someone says they want to buy some “retarded sunglasses” I highly doubt they are contemplating the intellect of that pair of sunglasses. Perhaps you have the best of intentions, but the number of times that word has been hurled across a playground has made it a slur plain and simple.

And since I’m ranting today, let me add a two more things that irk me about the word and its use:

  1. Retarded is spelled with two d’s and NOT with two t’s. Called something retarded while simultaneously misspelling it is the type of irony that that is best saved for novels.
  2. Every once a while, a person will get really inventive and in addition using the word retard or retarded, they’ll also slow their speech or bend their wrist in manner usually seen in those with physical disabilities. News flash: a physical disability is not the same as a mental one. I taught many a student labeled “retarded” and most showed absolutely no outward sign of their disability. I know high school science was a long time ago, but they have proven that the mouth and the brain are not the same organ, so please don’t make me question your intelligence while you’re trying to question someone else’s.

Boy smiling while being held by his father

More than anything, I hope my beautiful son is never called a "retard.

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  1. “If you are unable to come up with anything besides retard and retarded then I would suggest that maybe you are not in a position to question the intelligence of others. Just a thought.”

    Fantastic! That is why I have taught my kids that any insults that reference anything that a person can’t help are strictly off limits, race, looks, disabilities and the like. My 12 year old manages just fine without having to resort to them. (I’m not sure if that is a point of pride or not.) Great post!

    • I bet your kids are pretty smart! And I think that’s a fabulous rule for children–one more adults should follow.

  2. Thank you so much, Katy. You’ve said it just the way I wish I could. As the mom of three children with intellectual challenges, I hate hate hate that word.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this, Katy. You’ve said everything I wish I could say about this. It hurts to hear so many young people acting like it’s just another word.

  4. I hope Charlie is never called that either. My dh quit his job (he was gong to anyway but this sped up the process) the day his manager referred to our beautiful, wonderful girl with Autism as a “f—ing retard”. That was the day we realized what a hateful word it had become.

  5. All the thoughts I’ve had about this subject, you just put down in words. Beautiful.

  6. Nicely stated.

    At my oldest middle school they have started a huge campaign to stop the use.

  7. I have to say, I caught myself saying it the other day. You are doing something for awareness here, because I CAUGHT MYSELF. I’m aware of it now, something I can’t say has always been the case.

    • Sarah, I am SO GRATEFUL that you shared this. It’s not about perfection, it’s about awareness, Reading your comment makes me know that I’m creating awareness and that is so important to me.

  8. Winning!

  9. You’re awesome. I was the program coordinator at a sheltered workshop for adults with developmental disabilities until Stephen was about 9 months old (which was when his health issues started showing up), and the COO there used to refer to the employees as “retards.” It was so grating, but I never felt comfortable saying something (until the day I quit!).

    I will never understand why people feel the need to argue their rights to use such a derogatory and hurtful word.

    • This is so shocking to me. Cannot imagine a person could work in that job and use that term–seems like a poor fit.

  10. Well put. At some stage a joke based on the film Forrest Gump was doing the rounds on FB and the word was used there. I pointed out that it is wrong and the person who quoted the joke felt bad and offered to remove the post. One of her friends actually got into quite a tizz about it and couldn’t understand why I would object – after all it was “just a joke”. I doubt very much that someone with an intellectual disability would find the joke funny. Being laughed at is not funny. Ever. And if only a few people can share in the joke, it’s not really a joke, but bullying.

    • That’s what really gets me–the defensiveness. As if someone else who hasn’t experienced what you have has the right to tell you how you should feel. And yes, I do think it’s especially horrible since it mocks a population that isn’t always able to defend itself.

  11. Well put. I can add nothing more to your well-thought and well-worded post.

  12. Well said… I couldn’t agree more!

  13. Yes, very true. I did not realize how offensive the ‘r’ word is until a couple of years ago, but it really is so inappropriate. I just recently heard it used in a public conversation & was appalled, so, yes, bringing awareness that the word is indeed offensive is the first step for sure!!!

    • Like you, Carrie, my awareness has grown. I do hope that posts like these help bring attention to how hurtful these words can be.

  14. THANK YOU so much for speaking out against the naysayers and for so eloquently explaining the issues around the word. I was genuinely surprised that so many people dug in their heels and defended saying it. The ignorance and lack of empathy was surprising, not to mention unsettling.

    • Yes, that’s what got me too–the defensiveness. I’m not talking about censoring political speech, or art, or music, or poetry. I’m talking about cleaning up your everyday language. And you’re right–it’s amazing how little empathy some people have. Like so many things, it’s an uphill battle, but I do think throwing our two cents in helps.

  15. Very well written, and it seems silly you even had to write this.

    • I agree, Nora. I’m quite surprised by the number of people who are willing to tell you how you should feel about a word.

  16. I appreciate you taking this stand, Katy.

    • Thanks, Ginger. I don’t mind when people are ignorant, but when you tell them something is offensive and they just keep defending it–that gets my goat.

  17. Amen! Very well said! I could not agree more!

  18. I just called someone out on FB for using the r-word and she immediately pulled down her status and posted her next status as an apology. It was a good feeling to have said something and it made a difference.

  19. I would rather here my kids cursing than using certain words such a retarded. It’s so personal, such a direct intention to degrade someone. Because of people like you, who open your world to us and allow us to know you and your Charlie, the world is slowly changing. I really think it is.

  20. My Zumba teacher will make a comment sometimes (and she’s GREAT at Zumba) and say “don’t we look retarded?” while we’re doing a certain move and I wince EVERY time. I’m think in my head, doesn’t she realize she could have a parent in this class who has a child that is or could be labeled with that word? But I don’t think her brain even goes there and that makes me a little sad and mad.

    I also hope and pray that your sweet boy is never called that. Ever. And thanks for putting this out there. People need to know.

    • You know, Elaine, I lot of people say, “well, I wouldn’t use it in front of anyone who was offended by it,” but you are right–we never really know who we’re talking to. Most people don’t go around with a big sticker on their forehead that reads, “Someone in my family is disabled,” so you could offending people without even knowing it.

  21. Your points are spot on. I especially like your response to the issue of free speech. Like you, I once used this term a long time ago when I was younger, immature, and didn’t understand the impact it might have. A little common sense goes a long way.

  22. Beautifully said!