Yesterday, March 2nd was a day to “Spread the Word to End the Word” – an effort put forward by the Special Olympics and Best Buddies to eliminate the word “retard” and its variations from our collective vocabularies. It is a day to raise awareness to the idea the R-word, while created with the best of intentions, has now become both outdated in the medical profession and outright derogatory in casual language. So, while I have no intention of telling people how to speak, I do have some food for thought…
Over the past century, the term “mentally retarded” gradually came to exist. It was the medical world’s way of defining patients with an I.Q of less than 70, and of replacing vague, outdated terms such as idiotic, feeble-minded, and mongoloid. However, over time, the word gradually made its way into everyday language – and it did so as an insult. Now, if a t-shirt at a store is ugly, it “looks retarded.” If a referee makes a bad call in a game, he’s “a retard.” If you spill coffee on yourself in the morning, you self-deprecatingly say that you’re “being retarded today.” We’ve all heard it, and most of us (including myself) have used it.
Today, these unintended meanings that the R-word has acquired have become so pervasive that they overshadow its original, intended one – to the point that they are inextricably linked. I’ve often heard it argued that “mentally retarded” is simply a medical term and therefore cannot be offensive. Unfortunately, that horse is out of the barn. Melissa and I can say from first-hand experience that hearing “mentally retarded” in even the most objective of terms sends an uncontrollable chill down our spines. And we aren’t alone. The community of and for people with intellectual disability has spoken out – and it has created change. The psychiatrist’s bible – the DSM-V has redefined “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” The American Medical Association and World Health Organization have followed suit. The United States Congress has replaced all mention in previous laws of “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” As of 2014, the United States Supreme Court has ensured that all future opinions use this new terminology. The world is speaking out to say that the R-word needs to be demolished from our vocabulary.
Many people wonder if this is simply “political correctness.” I’ve even heard it described as a “euphemism treadmill,” where one term gets replaced with the next, each being used essentially in the same way. These questions and arguments are missing the point. This is not about the word itself, but rather it is about the feelings behind the words. Consider what would be different if just a few decades ago, the term “retarded” transitioned into popular language in a way that truly reflected people with intellectual disabilities. What if when somebody worked tirelessly to achieve a goal, they were “being retarded?” What if someone who loved unconditionally was a “retard.”
Our language reflects our attitudes, and our attitudes affect our actions. Let’s take this opportunity to clean the slate. Start fresh. Let’s stop using the R-word and start seeing people with intellectual disabilities for who they truly are: caring, fun-loving, hard-working, and courageous individuals.