“That’s so retarded.”
It was hard for me to even type out that word without cringing. Over the years, the word “retarded,” which from now on I will refer to as “the r-word,” has been transformed from a medical diagnosis to a derogatory insult. According to James C. Harris, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Pediatrics, Mental Health and History of Medicine, “The term ‘mental retardation’ was introduced by the American Association on Mental Retardation in 1961 and soon afterwards was adopted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5)” (Medscape.com). Since then, the r-word has been morphed to an insult used to describe things that are “stupid” or ridiculous.
In 2010, President Obama signed what is known as Rosa’s Law, named after an 8-year old girl who has Down-Syndrome, which removed the r-word from federal and educational documents and policies. The term was replaced with people first language like “intellectual disability” or “a person with an intellectual or developmental disability.” This law showed that the r-word needed to be removed from vocabulary because it was not just a medical term anymore–it became hurtful to people.
But apparently federal laws will never be enough because I still hear this term being carelessly thrown around all the time.
I have done my best to correct people when I hear them use the r-word, and many times their response is a simple, “Oh, I am sorry. I did not know that it was offensive.” And then we move on. I understand that many people are not aware of how this word can actually affect a person. And that’s okay. Educating people about the offensive nature of the word is a huge part of removing the hurtful use of the word from society.
Sometimes I will come across a WONDERFUL person who obliviously says the r-word, sees how hearing the word upsets me, and realizes that something needs to be done about it. They change their vocabulary right then and there, and even spread the word to other people about it’s negative meaning. Unfortunately, it is not always this easy to change someone’s ways.
Then there are the people who just DON’T. GET. IT. They continue to use it over and over. Even after I ask them to please not say the word, even after I explain that I have seen the use of this word make some of my best friends’ days go from great to terrible, even after I emphasize how hurtful the r-word actually is. They try to argue with me on why they should be able to say it. Are you kidding me? Were you even listening when I told you I’ve seen this word make someone cry? “It’s just a word.” But it’s not. It really is not.
It’s more than a word. It’s a label. When you use the r-word to describe something as stupid, you are associating people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with things and actions that are “stupid.” And thats putting them into categories that are untrue, and unfair.
So next time you try to make a case about why you should continue to use the r-word, please, please think about this: what if it was you. How would you feel if something completely out of your control was altered and distorted by society into something humiliating and offensive? And what if that was your sibling. Wouldn’t you take offense to the r-word if it was being used to describe your brother who has an intellectual disability? Wouldn’t you stand up for him? People with disabilities are NOT stupid. People with disabilities are NOT dumb. They aren’t foolish, or mindless, or unintelligent. So stop associating them with things that are. Remove the r-word from your vocabulary because it is offensive, and derogatory. Remove the r-word from your vocabulary because if you are not a friend, or a brother, or a cousin of someone with a disability, chances are you know someone who is. Remove it because no one deserves to be labeled. Remove it because it is more than just a word.
To learn more about the r-word and sign the pledge to remove the r-word from your vocabulary, visit r-word.org. By doing something as little as thing, you can be the difference in someone’s life.