When I hear the word “retarded” used to describe someone or something that is unintelligent, silly or even as a filler-word when another adjective doesn’t suffice, it literally makes me cringe. Worse yet is when I hear it being used to actually describe someone with a disability in a derogatory way. As a physician, I am versed in the fact that long ago, the word used to be a simple clinical term to describe those with developmental delays or cognitive disabilities. However, Urban dictionary reminds us that “stupid” and “wasted” have since been more predominant uses.
During the 2011 NBA Finals, Miami Heat star Lebron James murmured, “that’s retarded” after listening to what he felt was a “stupid question” at a post-game press conference. Fortunately, Lebron later apologized publicly after disability groups complained about its offensive nature. However, only last year, right-wing personality Ann Coulter posted a Twitter message referring to President Obama as a “retard,” and later went on to defend her usage of the term to mean “loser”. The fact that even celebrities use the word so flippantly as synonymous with “stupid” and “loser” highlights the fact that many see this as a non-issue.
The effect that language can have on people is indisputable. Just as words can move us, inspire us or even heal us emotionally, they can insult, exclude and dehumanize. These latter painful impacts that the “r-word” has on those with disabilities is the impetus behind the Special Olympics campaign “Spread the word to end the word” to persuade individuals to stop using it, “as a starting point toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.” This past Wednesday, March 6th, was a national day of awareness of this effort, but the movement is an ongoing one whose goals are much broader than simply not using the r-word. It is a revolution to increase consciousness, change attitudes and become more accommodating in our mindsets about a population that has been largely hurt and ignored throughout history.
While statistics may vary, in 2011, the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau reported a prevalence of 12.2 percent – almost 38 million – of individuals with disabilities in the United States. Despite these large numbers, individuals with disabilities often face stigmatization that serves as a barrier to inclusion and growth. The Americans with Disabilities Act addressed structural barriers by prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity for those with disabilities. Almost two decades later, President Obama passed Rosa’s Law, changing the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” in federal health, education and labor laws to “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability”, respectively. This step displayed recognition of the concept that legitimate clinical entities were being delegitimized by the pervasive negative connotations of the “r-word”. Yet policy change is only one part of the strategy towards inclusivity and does not address individual perceptions.
There are many people who are caring, sensitive individuals who do not view the use of “retard” as disrespectful or heartless, particularly when used as a joke or when not referring to someone who actually has a disability. I would know; in my teens, I was one of them. The problem is not necessarily with intention; it is about consciousness. It is the recognition that whether one’s intent is cruel or well-meaning, semantics can have a destructive effect – both in terms of the attitudes it conjures as well as the actions motivated by these attitudes that may result in a less accepting culture. Furthermore, the choice we make to listen to or silence the pleas of those affected by these semantics not to be equated with a word of derision directly reflects — however subconscious — the value that we as a society place on these individuals.
When I politely express sensitivity of or distaste towards the r-word, I am often asked sympathetically if I have a family member or close friend who is intellectually or physically disabled. When I answer in the negative, they sometimes go on to think I’m just being too serious. It always confuses me, as if the only justifiable reason to advocate for others or express sensitivity about a cause is due to a personal relationship. As a trained Pediatrician and an Allergist, I regularly advocate for children and those with allergies though I don’t have any of either. My sensitivity results from a simple decision to be socially conscious with my words for the millions who may be hurt or affected by them.
I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud. Nonetheless, if serving as a voice for those who aren’t heard makes me one, I’m okay with that. I don’t personally get offended easily, but am often sensitive to speech that may offend vulnerable populations, and even more so if I am certain it hurts them. So it’s something that I actually don’t want to be desensitized to.
At the end of the day, “banning” a word really isn’t going to solve anything. Stigma and its counterpart, inclusion, are reflected in actions and the cycle of attaching a pejorative subtext will only repeat with any euphemism for those with disabilities unless the underlying negative connotations are removed. Moreover, censorship violates our freedom of speech, and that is the last thing any social justice advocate, such as myself, would support. However, if the Special Olympics campaign to “end the word” causes us to be reflective before we speak and fosters mutual partnership towards the common goal of becoming a more mindful and inclusive society, it will have more than done its job.
This article was also published using a different title by the Huffington Post.