The Problem With the “R” Word

In the United States, our laws are a system of rules that regulate the actions of our people. They form a list of the very things our people cannot do. You cannot abuse animals. You cannot commit human trafficking. You cannot rob a bank. You cannot murder another person. Why? Because if you do, you will be penalized and punished.

But then, there are certain actions that you should not do. These are different from those you cannot do. Sure, you will not be penalized by the United States government, but you (hopefully) just know not to do it. You should not talk during a movie. You should not swallow gum. You should not wear white pants after Labor Day.

I call these two categories the “should nots” and the “cannots.” One specific “should not” that has become too commonly ignored is the use of the word “retarded.”

You spilled orange juice all over the kitchen table. You’re retarded.

He thought I was in 11th grade? That’s retarded.

I got a 85 percent on my history exam. That test was retarded.

But what does “retarded” really say?

I have been attempting to find one thesaurus where the word “retarded” is a synonym for the word “dumb,” “idiotic” or “stupid.” So far, I have not succeeded at doing so. This is simply because it is not true. The definition of retarded is not similar to any of those words, and this is something that people today need to learn.

The word retarded is defined as less advanced in mental, physical or social development than usual for one’s age. For many people today, the word retarded has become too relevant and common for anyone to realize its true definition. Even in our own community, the word is thrown around like a sweaty gym bag in the locker room. Kids and adults need to be educated on what this eight-letter word can mean for someone who is suffering with intellectual disabilities. In the United States alone, roughly 4.5 million people have identified as having some form of mental retardation. For those 4.5 million people, retardation means something different, and ultimately, is insulting. The word “retarded” excludes, as well as devalues, them as people.

John Franklin Stephens, a man from Virginia with Down Syndrome, often writes for The Denver Post. Stephens is a “global messenger” for the Special Olympics and spends much of his time raising awareness for the cultural stigmas now associated with mental disabilities. Earlier this year, he wrote: “So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are someone that is not your kind.”

Stephens makes it clear that the term is demeaning and cruel and sends a harsh message, even if that is not what is intended.

Many people agree with Stephens, and this belief is becoming extremely popular all over America. A campaign titled, “Spread the Word to End the Word,” is attempting to bring attention to the issue. Even President Obama recognized this. In 2010, he signed “Rosa’s Law,” a bill, removing the term “mental retardation” from federal policies such as education, labor and health, and substituting them with the phrase “intellectual disability.” To people with disabilities, even little changes like this are considered victories. If the government is able to make regulations over the word “retarded,” it is clear that it’s time for everyone else to join in on the movement.

When the term first became used, it was a medical term with specific connotation. The use of the word has expired from its traditional clinical routes, and it is widely considered inappropriate in mainstream uses. Despite this, forms of the word such as “retard,” have become widely popular as an insult. In addition, when such words are used, it only reinforces the old-fashioned stereotypes, that people with intellectual disabilities are degraded and less valued. So why are you still using it? Now, it’s old-fashioned. It’s old news. It’s outdated. It’s like using a floppy disk, or listening to NSYNC— people just don’t do it anymore.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, so what if I say this word? And believe me, your argument is valid. Every time you say the r-word it’s not going to be beeped out like you just cursed on television. Saying the r-word isn’t illegal in the United States. If you say this word, you’re not going to be arrested or fined. But it’s important to take the time to think about what this word really means. By saying it, it is not only making yourself appear uneducated, it is also promoting the offensive, exclusive and derogatory term.

Next time you want to call something or someone retarded, remember what it means to someone with disabilities. Try using a different word because, quite frankly, retarded is something that today, you genuinely cannot say anymore. In fact, there are 1,025,109 words in the English dictionary; so thank Merriam-Webster, because today, you have many other options from which to choose.

By Charlotte Golden


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