Friday, November 4, 2011

Seems clear to me

I'm a fairly shy person when it comes to personal topics, but I promised myself that every time I heard a person say or write "retard" or "retarded" I would call them out. I was pretty uncomfortable with the idea, but I figured I could stand a little discomfort if maybe, even occasionally, I could help someone understand the problem with using the R-word as an insult, or even as a clinical description.

This led to one very good conversation on Epiphany in Baltimore (on a post that I can't seem to locate to link to, 11/14/11 - found it here). That felt pretty good, I talked a little about people first language, ideas were exchanged. Win-win.

Then there was a Facebook post. I really don't think the poster got what I was saying, but he apologized and so that wasn't too bad.

At work though, it's a different story. It's the same people, over and over again, who absolutely don't get what I'm saying. So here's my pitch, you can tell me if it's obscure to you.

This word is too loaded to be used any more. When it is used as an insult against people who are not intellectually disabled, you are implying that people with intellectual disabilities are valueless, the ever accessible butt of any put-down. If you use it as a clinical term, it has way too much baggage from usage as an insult. It's a general label that's sweeping and hurtful, and really, in the end, doesn't help you understand an individual any better. Use a sentence and actually describe the challenges a person is dealing with. Try to be compassionate, while you're at it. Finally the biggest reason to stop using the word is that the people that you are labeling don't want you to call them by the R-word any more.

Here are the comments I've gotten which let me know my ideas aren't coming across:
"Oh, so you're saying I'm insulting retarded people when I call X a retard. Ha, ha, ha!"
"It's the term that I learned to use for lower IQ's and I mean it clinically, not as an insult. Why should I change?"
"Oh, that's right, your kid's autistic...sorry"

I won't stop calling people out when I hear the term, but honestly, I don't think I'm doing much more than making them think I don't have a sense of humor.

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine


  1. This has happened throughout history, with the terms 'moron','idiot', and 'imbecile' once being clinical terms describing people based on IQ or otherwise-perceived mental ability. Nowadays, of course, we cannot imagine that people with good intentions might call others such a pejorative term.

    Growing up, my father worked for the state Department of Mental Retardation. In high school, I also worked summer jobs at a vocational center for people with developmental disabilities, among them both autism and mental retardation. I helped manage contract work at the workshop, and also helped some of our clients with placement in jobs out in the community.

    So I am used to the term as a descriptor. This was around the time it was becoming common to use it as an insult or even just a generic negative modifier ("this math homework is retarded" is something I heard from my high school classmates). I discussed the issue with some of my friends that using it that way was offensive, but I also let it go by at other times.

    I understand your pitch, and mostly agree with it. My one drawback is that our language shouldn't need to keep changing based on society's insults. Any word we use to label people with intellectual disabilities may be turned against us because society perceives those people to be of low value. So, while I am willing to keep up with the current language, it would be more effective to work so that every person has a valued role in society so that there is no more stigma attached to those disabilities and therefore those words. That is more important than being language police.

    [Of course, I know you are doing this too, through your blog and elsewhere!]

  2. I see your point, but as much as I'd like to change hearts and minds, I'd settle just for not having a hostile workplace.

    Being as old as I am I've seen lots of language changes based on society's insults. We used to have secretaries, not administrative engineers. I used to be called a girl engineer, and even though I'm old now, female engineers straight out of college aren't girl engineers anymore. There used to be a fair amount of ethnic terms used, if not often towards individuals, it was towards certain actions (bargaining or rigging something together haphazardly... I'm not comfortable even typing the terms, so use your imagination). That language is long gone from our workplace, even if there are still some bigots and jerks. I'd like to see the R-word similarly go extinct.

  3. Yes, I am glad of those changes. And I'd say I 95% agree with you that "retarded" needs to go too. I 100% agree that its use as an insult/derogatory term should end, and have never used it that way myself. I also didn't mean to excuse my inaction in the times I didn't correct my friends.

    And I reluctantly agree that its use as a descriptor of a disability some people have should probably change as well. Because, as you say, the societal use of the term is so loaded down with the other meaning. This change is happening. The DMR my father used to work for is now DDS (Department of Developmental Services).

    My reluctance in the second part comes from not wanting to admit defeat, that the people using the word negatively, offensively, and wrongly have made an impact. Also because I value communication, both across boundaries and years. I'd like us to be able to read a book from 40 years ago where the author discusses MR and not cringe at the term. Whatever word/s come to replace MR (intellectual disability?) may suffer the same fate (because our society still systematically devalues these people) and be counted an insult 40 years from now.

    But, of course, how people have used the word has made an impact, even though I'd like to deny it. The negativity associated with the R-word in our current society, and the wishes of the people described by the word, outweighs the value of communicating over time.

  4. Well that's an ah-ha moment for me! I get so caught up in my workplace that I didn't think about literature, or even more importantly, technical writings for people in the field of special needs. It is hard to make a shift and then be able to look at the past without cringing. There's so much in the past as far as dealing with people who are neurologically different that makes you cringe. On the other hand, those who have dealt with the community with compassion shouldn't be looked down upon because they had a different lexicon than we currently do.

    Hmmm...much to mull over. I sense another NaBloPoMo post in there someplace. :-)


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