Removing “Retarded” From Our Vocabulary

by Katie on October 31, 2012

in Bullying, Lifestyle, Real Life

I began working at my current company a little over 2 months ago. Part of my job is to go from office to office filling in when other people are on vacation or taking a sick day. This means I see other peoples’ patients each day and work with different therapists day in and day out. It can be a little overwhelming, but I really love the variety.

Within the first week on the job, I noticed a startling and troubling trend. The majority of my co-workers, all of whom are all health care providers, regularly use the word “retarded.” I don’t mean they use it as a medical label; they use it as slang, as a pejorative.

I don’t want to sound high and mighty. I used to use the word “retarded” regularly myself. It was a part of my everyday vocabulary, and I never thought twice about what the word meant. It wasn’t until I starting teaching and working with kids who had intellectual disabilities that I realized that what seemed like a harmless word was a symbol of something bigger and stopped saying it.

In recent years, using the word in everyday speaking as an insult to another has become taboo and for good reason.

This week, the “r-word” came up in the news after the presidential debate when political commentator, Ann Coulter, used the word in a tweet:

I am not here to discuss politics, and before it gets brought up in the comments, Coulter and Republicans who have coined the term “libtards” are not the only ones to have made this mistake. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff said it a few years ago (and subsequently apologized) and Barack Obama said that he bowled like he was in the Special Olympics, which is no better than using the word “retarded” (he also apologized). I don’t need reminders that this word gets hurled along both sides of the political spectrum. That is not the point. It’s a distraction from the meat of this argument. I have enough outrage for Republicans and Democrats on this one.

The point is that this word has no place in our vernacular. We can virtually all agree not to use racial slurs or sexist labels, but there is a large proportion of the country who has no problem using retarded as an insult. It doesn’t matter if you’re insulting someone else, like Ann Coulter and Rahm Emmanuel, or if you’re being self-depricating like Obama was, the context is unimportant.

When you use the word retarded to mean ridiculous or stupid or silly, you’re perpetuating a sterotype that anyone with mental retardation is ridiculous or stupid or silly. You’re saying that to be mentally retarded something less than what you are, that those with MR are inferior to you. And that is simply not the case. Having mental retardation doesn’t make someone stupid, it doesn’t make you better than them. In fact, some of the people I know with mental retardation are significantly wiser than those who developed typically.

People with mental retardation are every bit as worthy of respect as you are. They are someone’s child, they are someone’s brother or sister. They are productive members of society who work hard, just like you do. Using their diagnosis as a slur is unacceptable and disrespectful.

I know that some people push back against attempts to increase political correctness, but I would argue this isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about being a sensitive human being. Asking you to not use the word retarded isn’t a slippery slope. If you stop using it, it doesn’t mean you have to stop using every other insult you wield. There are about 100 words you can slip in in place of the word retarded, and your point will still be made.

I understand that it’s annoying to have a stranger criticize your vocabulary, to tell you you need to stop saying something that you feel isn’t hurting anyone. But I’d argue that it’s worse to hear a stranger using your disability to mock other people. To hear others publicly using your diagnosis to insult others.

Please, think before you speak. Your words are powerful and they can have an impact, even if you don’t realize it.

Katie is a 28 year old Southern Californian, married to a doctor, racking up as much student debt as possible as a full-time graduate student in a health science. Her hobbies include abusing parentheses, baking complicated desserts that almost universally involve frosting and loving her two cats more than is socially acceptable. She’s currently balancing her first child and graduating from graduate school.  So planning and timing are also things she excels at. You can read more from Katie on her blog, Overflowing Brain.

 image credit R-Word
Liz October 31, 2012 at 6:04 pm

First of all, I completely agree with you that it is a word we should just not be using. However, I also can’t help but ask if people are actually using the term mentally retarded at all? I think that term sounds just as awful as using retarted to describe something ridiculous or silly. I’m not sure quite what is acceptable though. Maybe mentally challanged or a mental handicap? But mental retardation sounds old fashioned and unacceptable to me. I just would not ever use the term retardation to describe anyone. Am I wrong to think that way? I try to not use the term retarded ever, even (especially) when describing someone with a disability. I guess the “casual” use of it has made it seem like a non-pc term to me.

Katie October 31, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Well, previously, it has been a medical label- we see patients who are diagnosed with MRCP, which is mental retardation/cerebral palsy, but it’s key that we don’t say someone is mentally retarded, but that they have mental retardation. It’s something we call patient first language. You have a diagnosis, you are not that diagnosis, if that kind of make sense. However, largely as a result of the word being usurped as a pejorative, the medical body that governs these labels is changing the term in its next edition. It will henceforth be labeled an intellectual disability instead of mental retardation.

Katie October 31, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Though now I noticed that I used mental retardation incorrectly once in this, “You’re saying that to be mentally retarded something less than what you are…”


Liz October 31, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Thank you for the clarification. It’s a shame that a medical term needs to be changed. I just hope the use of the term negatively can be stopped.

kellye October 31, 2012 at 6:35 pm

I am also a HUGE supporter of people-first language. I’m in a graduate-level special education program currently and am ASTONISHED how many classmates AND professors doesn’t use people-first language; then, when I point it out to them, they don’t see the big deal. These are current and future special education workers… it’s so sad… if you have any links/suggestions how to get the message across, I’d appreciate it.

I October 31, 2012 at 11:51 pm

I used the word today to describe the ridiculousness of a situation.I felt so bad .It’s not a nice word .I really have to be conscious of my vocabulary.The writer is absolutely correct.

:) November 1, 2012 at 11:07 am

I’d like to hear your co-workers’ reaction(s) when you called them on using this word.

My Weight Watchers leader used it a few weeks ago and I took her aside after the meeting and explained how uncomfortable her using that word in that way made me feel; she looked shocked at herself, apologized, and hasn’t used it since (in front of me, anyway) but other times that I have called people on it they have acted defensive.

Any hints for how to deal with that?
I always try to do the “call out” privately and gently, of course.

Karen H November 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm

I recently became certified as a Teacher of the Visually Impaired and during my coursework it was stressed that we use people-first language (a person who is blind, not a blind person). Most people who are blind don’t mind this but it really makes you stop and think… I have a masters in special ed and the classification of mental retardation was changed a long time ago. Working in the field of education I’ve become accustomed to NOT hearing that word used so it’s always a shock when I do hear it used in a public setting. It’s a shame that the general public does become defensive instead of trying to change for the better. Good for you for putting this out there and helping to make a difference! Every little bit counts!!!!

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