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Down with the 'R' word (of course! But how?)

I'm the mother of a kid with Asperger's, and dear friends who have kids with Down Syndrome. I've watched as our cultural relationship to children with minor and major developmental disabilities has changed; when I was in high school, the students who were friends with the kids in the classroom behind the cafeteria were looked on with a mixture of awe and utter incomprehension. It was something like sainthood: lovely, admirable, but most couldn't see themselves on that path. But now, it's not unusual for children with Down Syndrome to be beloved by their classmates, and the ones with the kind of dear social ineptitude I sometimes see in my own child, tolerated with kindness. I've had conversations with the high schoolers I coach about the "r" word. All agree, it's totally uncool. I've watched my kids interact with children who have a variety of disabilities, and it's just a thing. Something that is, and is not to be pitied, or belittled, and does not detract from the coolness of the kid.

We have a harder time in my house with that word. My husband's family grew up in what seems to me to have been a lot of bigotry. (It was probably not unusual for the time, but my current context makes a stark contrast.) I'm often left correcting my brother-in-law for his use of the "r" word, or some similarly unacceptable cultural slur. I know he doesn't really mean any of this, and my kids are savvy enough to know that it's not o.k. just because their uncle says it, but it still rankles. I often pull him aside and have the talk with him, this is his nephew he's slurring, and the boys' friends -- he apologizes, promises to work harder. I get it. It's hard to undo that kind of aculturization.

I tend to forgive my brother-in-law. But I can't really forgive someone like Ann Coulter. That's why this post was incredible -- it took Ann to task for her slur, and yet, forgave her. (I want to see her fired, and her audience ripped from her, honestly.)

I keep thinking, oh how far we've come! And then something like this happens -- our President called the R-word by someone with a huge platform, who is paid well for her bombast -- and I think, oh dear. We Americans are still those people. We're still the bigots.

Can we change? Can we do like our children are doing already? How common is the Coulter sort of aculturization? Is Portland a bubble of peace and love? If it's a bubble, it's a bubble I'm happy to live in -- but I so look forward to the way forward. Do you ever hear the "r" word, or is it going away in your world too?


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Can someone tell me what this r word is? Retard? If so I think you're going a bit overboard. It's uncool to namecall, period. But the word retard has an actual legitimate definition and doesn't need to be "shunned" as if its a bad word.

Retard as a verb, "to slow or hinder," is totally legit. Retard as a noun? Never ok.

Well I know that for me personally , I use the word retarded all the time when describing someTHING that is stupid or nonfuntional. I don't call people retards but I do say "oh that is SO retarded". I see nothing wrong with that, since I'm not referring to anyone. So , I think it's a bit much to refer to it as "the R-word " as if its some vulgarity. It's really about treating others with respect and its all about how you use the word. So I'm not going to jump on the PC bandwagon with this one.

....then, @Cranky crank, following @Katie's dictionary and grammar reminder, technically, "oh that is SO retarded" does NOT mean a stupid or nonfunctional thing: It means "oh that thing SO slows me down" or "oh that event SO hinders my life." [yeah, I know, then, even more technically, it would be "retarding": "MAX is late again?? oh, that is SO retarding; I'll never get anywhere today."]

Sorry, can't have it both ways. If you're referring to something as stupid or nonfunctional, then, yes, the word retarded hurts other people just by its very presence in your sentence.

Plus, using the slang that way just sounds...well...um...was going to say "dumb" or "uneducated" or "stupid '80s Valley Girl-like"...um...hmm...

OP: We don't use the word retard or retarded as nouns or adjectives (or in slang expressions) in our home, and I would call anyone visiting us on it. I do hear it a lot the way @Cranky crank uses it, among my friends (none of whom has children or siblings who might be teased in such a way)

Well, actually I haven't even heard someone legitimately refer to themselves or others as retarded jn years. Isn't the new word "mentally challenged"? no one even uses that word anymore in that context.

Cranky crank, you are missing a crucial point.

When you use the word "retarded" to describe something as "stupid or nonfunctional," you are making an analogy: this thing is like a person who has disabilities, a person who, once upon a time, was commonly called "retarded" or "a retard," even if you wouldn't use those words now. Using retard as a derogatory expression says that this thing, like a person with disabilities, is stupid or nonfunctional. But here's the thing: that person with disabilities is NOT stupid. She is NOT nonfunctional. She is a person. With disabilities.

When you use "retarded" to mean "stupid or nonfunctional," whether to describe a person or a thing, the problem is NOT that you are disrespecting that thing or person. The person (people) that you are disrespecting are the people with disabilities on the other side of your analogy.

If you prioritize treating others with respect, than even the usage that you describe should be out-of-bounds.

With regard to your half-hearted retraction: whether the usage is current is not in question. The impetus for the letter that was the inspiration for this article was a usage of "retard" by a major pundit. See: http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/23/living/ann-coulter-obama-tweet/index.html

Oh, so much to say, so many emotions. And it's something, perhaps, that's hard to get before you have someone in your inner circle who might get slapped with that label. Or who might be the image in someone's mind's eye when they are calling some inanimate object "retarded". But when my friend Eleanor, wise, funny, New Season's employee, public speaker and activist who also has Down syndrome hears someone use the word she gets pretty darn angry. And she can explain far better than I can why the word is offensive, passe, rude and offensive. I just know that my mama bear belly gets a sucker punch when someone stands in front of my 6 year old daughter and tells me the gate is retarded, the car is retarded, etc. It's no longer about being PC, about being the word police. It's about waking up and realizing you are, in fact, hurting people, real people, when you use some words, and deciding what you want to do about that.

Here's another post that says it well: http://davehingsburger.blogspot.com/2008/08/words-hit-like-fist.html

"It's about waking up and realizing you are, in fact, hurting people, real people, when you use some words, and deciding what you want to do about that."

Yes, that, Abby. Thank you.

Cranky crank, would you ever say "I jewed him down to a better price."? You aren't referring to any specific Jewish person, so does that make it OK?
I find that the best response when people say the r-word (or other insensitive comments), is to simply say "Ouch". They realize that what they said hurts, but you aren't lecturing them about it. Most of the time, there is no ill intent, but saying "ouch" gives you a chance to have a discussion.

Thank you for expressing so clearly everything I think about the use of words like "retard" and "gay" and the phrase "throw like a girl."

Other words and phrases I've trained myself out of and am glad to see slip away--gypped, welched on a bet, Indian giver.

I don't use this word. I don't use it because I know it is considered not appropriate, but if you asked me why I couldn't tell. And this post is not making it any more clear. Isn't is a proper medical term "mental retardation"? If so, than "retarded" or "mentally retarded" is just a variation of this term. Calling somone stupid, is wrong, rude and judgmentall, but using the medical term when refering to a person with that medical condition seems like the way to go. Regardless, I won't use it. I don't mean to get anyone upset.

So I hear that "intelectual disability" is the correct phrase. I don't really see the difference. "Mental" and "intelectual" seem similar enough. "Retardation" and "disability" are not the same words but imply the same thing particularly in this context. Teh words were not rude. It is the way we started using they thatw as rude. In 20 years people may be using the "intelectual disability" in a rude way. Are we going to change the term again? Changing it doesn't solve anything. Teaching respect for all people is the key. And then we can all use the medical terms and not feel bad about it.

To anon and anon. There are two separate questions. One is what to call someone with an intellectual disability. The first choice would be their name. If you don't know their name, then yes, it's a bit of a moving target I suppose, as the language evolves. Currently most medical, and governmental are following the lead of the disability rights movement and moving away from Mentally Retarded in favor of intellectual or developmental disability. Personally, I rarely get offended when someone uses an antiquated term in a medical or educational context. I will likely use it as an opportunity to educate, without rancor.

The more offensive question is whether it's appropriate to use "retard" as an insult, whether in reference to someone with a disability, to someone without a disability or just a drawer that you can't open. And the answer to that, for me, is yes, it is offensive. Here is a link to a you tube video. Check it out if the question remains for you. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T549VoLca_Q

I think the term "retard" is similar (in ways) to racial and ethnic slurs. It is a word that has historically been used to objectify and devalue human beings, and for that reason alone I would never use it. Yes, teaching respect for all people is key, and for me a vital part of that big work is using humanizing rather than dehumanizing language. Period.

My older brother is mentally handicapped. When we were kids he would get taunted for being a "retard". Even though I was four years younger than him I would always rise to his defense. I am always on the lookout for people, adults and children alike, who attempt to victimize those who have challenges. It's unacceptable and shows lack of character, particularly in adults who use this word. I consider the word "retard" to be equivalent to "nigger". I hope one day is it considered just as outrageous and upsetting.


Thanks Katie and Abby for all the great points and links. I would add this to Katie's post above about making an analogy to somebody who is "stupid" and "nonfunctional":

Embedded in the analogy is the belief that "stupid" is an appropriate way to describe people or things that you just don't like, often because they (a) don't work the way you expect them to, (b) don't agree with you, or (c) move "too slow."

"Stupid" has taken on such a pejorative connotation that we really don't have a non-loaded way to describe somebody of below-average intelligence. In the same way, it's no longer possible to use the word "fat" as a simple descriptor; in our culture it's always an insult. This is because we rarely question the assumption that "smart" and "thin" are better. The truth is, intelligence is one of many thousands of traits that make us who we are. The ways we measure it are arbitrary, socially constructed, and notoriously culturally biased. Everyone deserves dignity and respect, because we are human; not because we scored above an arbitrary cutoff on an IQ test.

So yes, it's totally unacceptable to use the word r*tard as an insult — it's hate speech, and it creates a culture in which people with intellectual disabilities are dehumanized and targeted for violence. But using "idiot," "moron," "cretin" (all of which were also formerly diagnostic terms for people with intellectual disabilities), or even "stupid" as an all-purpose insult sends the same message.

Further reading:


They banned retard and so the kids at my son's school used 'speds' instead as in 'you are such a sped' (for special Ed). Banning words might make people feel better but it does little to address the underlying problems.

Sarah S, I love your links, taking it to the next level. When my daughter was born into our fast-talking, fast-thinking overly intellectualized family, I was pretty sure she would be good for all of us. And she is.

On another note, here is a link to a fabulous and very short You Tube from Portland's very own Eleanor Bailey. Share this. Let's get it to go as viral as An Coulter's now so very repeated remarks... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2eX6aFQYeU&feature=plcp

Last year, my school's student council did a little education for their peers around using the word "retard." They wrote and presented persuasive arguments, and offered a "I pledge to not use the 'r word'" campaign. Each class shared a video with teens (typical and those with disabilities) giving first-person perspectives on the word. They made it clear that it's not really a bad word, but one that can feel hurtful to hear (more like a put-down than a swear). I felt it supported our school's goal of having a climate where all people feel respected.

If our children can be thoughtful about the impact their words have on others, surely adults can do this too. To me, the idea of "This is a word I'm used to saying and even if you tell me it hurts you, I'm going to keep saying it," is a bogus--and unacceptable--argument.

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