Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The R-Word

- By guest blogger Stephanie Hickey -

I love words. But there is one word which I hate very particularly. Retarded. I hate that word and not only do I hear it constantly, I hear it everywhere: on television, on the streets, while riding the bus, everywhere.

“That’s so retarded!” It is a phrase that permeates our culture. Even more common to hear is the phrase “God, you’re so retarded!” The definition of the word means 1.) To delay or hold back in development or progress or 2.) A person who has a mental disability. In parenthesis, the definition specified the word retard was an offensive term or abusive.

Now although most people today don’t say “retarded” in reference to mentally or intellectually disabled individual (in fact, many--when asked--agree that to use the word in such a context is cruel and wrong, opting for the more politically correct and thoughtful terms such as “developmentally disabled” or “intellectually disabled”, the word is so still prevalent in everyday life. Its context is merely different. When a person currently says, “That’s so retarded”, he or she means stupid, lame or ridiculous. I’ve actually had people say to me, “You know I don’t mean it that way” or justify their use of the word when describing something as “Well, there’s really no other word to describe it (fill in some random example such as a blunder one would see on America’s Dumbest Criminals or America’s Funniest home videos). What else can a person say besides, “That’s so retarded!”?

No harm done, right? After all, it’s not meant that way. Well I contend that using the word retarded, referring to something as retarded and--especially jokingly calling others retarded, does cause harm, however unintentional. Damage is done because whether or not people mean people with mental disabilities when saying retarded, the word evokes images of people with intellectual disabilities because the two are linked to each other in our subconscious through previous years of usage and tasteless jokes that persist today. So each time someone utters the word it reinforces the cavalier attitude that it is okay to use the word, ignoring the fact that it is an offensive term that abuses people with developmental disabilities.

Suppose that a previously offensive racial slur took on a different meaning and began to be commonly used in everyday language. Can we really imagine that the minority against whom the term was a slur would forget its offensive history and tolerate its common use? Why should retarded be any different?

While I know that dreaded r-word is a permanent fixture in our culture of which we will never be rid, I would like to challenge the what-else-can-we-say attitude. If a person means retarded as in stupid, lame or ridiculous, why can’t that person say stupid, lame or ridiculous? How about thick, silly or absurd? Harebrained? Preposterous? Outlandish? Instead of using an offensive term meant in a “nice way”, why can’t we challenge ourselves to stretch our vocabularies? Perhaps if we do then the dreaded r-word may disappear from pop culture forever.

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