When I was in elementary school (it was first to sixth grade back then,) the special education classroom was called the “resource room.” However, I only remember calling it the “retard room.” To this day I’m not sure what the proper diagnosis was for any of the kids who were enrolled in the special ed program. I imagine it could have been anything from ADHD or dyslexia to autism or Asberger’s. (Although I remember one student from a different grade who had Down Syndrome, I don’t believe we were in the same school until junior high.)
I don’t specifically remember calling any classmate – with or without disabilities – a retard. (That does not necessarily mean I didn’t – I just don’t remember doing it.) However, I am certain I knew even at a young age that the word was derogatory.
At some point in my maturation (high school maybe?), I became aware that it was totally unacceptable and despicable to ever address a person with disabilities as being a retard. However, I continued to use the word retard (or retarded) without any reluctance in certain situations because I knew my intent when using these words was never meant to disparage mentally or intellectually disabled people.
Along this school of thought, I suppose there is kind of an unwritten spectrum of social acceptability or unacceptability when using retard or retarded to describe someone or something.
On one end of the more innocent spectrum – let’s call it point A – I have heard many a hungover contemporary say that he or she “got retarded” last night, or even “wicked retahded” if they’re a Masshole. I think The Black Eyed Peas have two versions of the same song with one being “Let’s get it started” and the other being “Let’s get retarded.” Personally, I do not interpret these examples as evidence of any specific intent to demean a class of individuals. (The use of the word may still have that effect, but we’ll discuss that below.)
Somewhere along the spectrum – say point B – further away from the innocent end and somewhat closer to the more spiteful end is when a speaker seeks to declare a situation or other person as being retarded. Perhaps the speaker has encountered an able-minded person who is being a jerk or difficult or mean. Or maybe the speaker observed another person make a simple mistake. Or possibly the speaker is trapped in a traffic jam that has occurred due to the sheer ineptitude and stupidity of multiple others. In all instances, the speaker describes the person as a retard or the situation as retarded.
At the more heinous end of the spectrum – point C – is when one uses retard or retarded to refer specifically to a person who has mental or intellectual handicaps. The speaker uses the word with a malicious intent of demeaning the individual to whom he or she refers. (Please note I’m not referring to those who use “mentally retarded” in the clinical and professional – though outdated – sense. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services only recently changed from its former name of Department of Mental Retardation.)
I will not waste time explaining why point C on the spectrum is hurtful and damaging to the psyche of anyone who is the recipient of such an insult, First Amendment rights or not. A person with any common sense needs no explanation on that front. However, I do want to address the gray area from points A to B on the aforementioned spectrum.
First, let me say that this is not an exercise in so-called political correctness. I know that just uttering the term “P.C.” makes people of certain ideologies want to spit and roll their eyes with contempt as they yearn for the day when they could openly utter racial epithets.
In fact, I’m not going to tell anyone whether using the words retard or retarded is right or wrong. Who am I to say? Until Gus was born, I used those words freely (as described above) because I knew my intent was never to offend or hurt.
But when Gus was born, I discovered the importance of precision when employing words to describe him. (I may be repeating myself from prior blogs so forgive me because it bears mention again.) My first lesson was that Gus is not a “Downs” kid. No, he is a kid first and foremost. While trisomy-21 may accurately describe the chromosomal structure of every cell that exists in his body, the diagnosis takes a back seat to a million other more important characteristics. It’s no different from any other parent who thinks first about how their kid is so funny, smart, beautiful, sweet etc. and not blond, tall, or brown-eyed. So it stands to reason that we need only begin any description of Gus as simply being a kid.
Next, I developed a sensitivity to use of the term “normal.” Generally, the occasions when we encountered this situation was when a medical professional was trying to compare and contrast a symptom or body function in Gus’ body that deviated from that of a child without Down Syndrome. More specifically, the doctor would say something like “Normal kids have VSDs that close upon their first breath of air but Gus’ did not.” Again, I understand the doctor had no intent at all to insult but the preferred terminology for Michelle and me in these instances is to contrast by saying “typical” rather than “normal.” In other words, I have a normal two year old boy. He likes to open kitchen cabinets. He likes to play. He pulls his sisters’ hair. He gets timeouts. However, typical kids do not have Down Syndrome. We’re splitting hairs somewhat here I admit. But the choice of words goes a long way for my family at least.
To the ignorant and/or those incapable of empathy, these two explanations may fairly be chalked up to me being “oversensitive.” On one hand, perhaps you’re right. On the other hand, I say cue the violins for the old days. But sensitivity is the perfect segue to the point I’m trying to make.
What is respect for another person but simply being sensitive to that person’s likes/dislikes, interests, or beliefs? Specifically, if I know that someone could misinterpret my use of any word, be it douche bag or loser, even though I had no intent to offend him or her, isn’t it just more sensible for me to eliminate the word from my vocabulary simply out of respect for him or her?
Self-proclaimed intellectual Ann Coulter made headlines this week for using retard to describe a segment of voters that she despises. See: http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/23/living/ann-coulter-obama-tweet/index.html?hpt=hp_t2 . Full disclosure, I abhor Coulter and her politics. Notwithstanding, I have no desire either to politicize this non-political topic, or to bring any further attention to her. I merely point this out because she is a well-educated woman whose opinion matters to a lot of people. So when she nonchalantly and callously uses the r-word to insult , she a) perpetuates the derogatory connotation associated with it and b) fosters support for the continued use of the term in our general parlance.
I have been meaning to write about this topic for months. However, every time I was ready to finally post a blog about the r-word, a loved one in my life coincidentally uttered the word in my presence (without any intent to offend whatsoever and only to convey a sentiment somewhere along points A and B of the spectrum I described above) so I held off because I did not want him or her to feel that I was chastising or judging them. But Coulter’s reckless disregard in her choice of words this week was finally enough for me to take to my keyboard.
So with that, I make a simple request to anyone who respects me and my family. Please reconsider your use of the r-word. I’m not saying that there is a right or a wrong here. I’m simply asking you to think before you speak the next time you are tempted to say the word retard or retarded. I bet you that there is a different word at your disposal that can describe whatever it is you’re trying to say. I’ve eliminated the terms from my vocabulary. And it’s not that hard to do.
If the rationale I’ve set forth above is not compelling enough for anyone to reconsider whether to continue saying the word “retard,” let me make one request of you in closing. If you ever say the r-word within earshot of Gus, be sure that you have your explanation ready as to why you do not mean to offend him when you say it. Soon enough, my son will be able to tell you why he thinks it’s a bad idea.