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.