Monday, February 02, 2009

Yes, words hurt.

When I was about 11, I went to stay at my uncle's bachelor pad in New Orleans. I think I spent the night; I can't remember. Either way, it was the coolest thing ever, because he was the coolest uncle ever and all of his nieces and nephews loved him (still do!). He took me to a catering job, took me biking in Audubon Park, and told me all about his girlfriend, who is now his wife. It was super exciting.

My uncle referred to a man using the n-word while I was there. My dad, mom, and stepdad all taught me to revile this word and to never use it because it hurts people, and I expressed that sentiment to my uncle. He said that it's just a fact that some people act like n-words, so he can use the word because no matter if it hurts people, it's still applicable. Also, since he'd never use the word when talking to a black person, it was okay, so he was never actually hurting anyone. This is, of course, ridiculous.

Thing is, I see the same thing happening every day, even now. Not my uncle, but from lots of people in the blogs and forums I read online, in conversation with friends, in news stories, etc. I'm not talking about the n-word. I'm talking about the r-word.


I used to use this word to refer to people and situations that I found stupid or annoying. "Why isn't the post office open after 11 on Saturdays? That's retarded." "That retard just cut me off in traffic!" It came naturally, just something I never thought about.

One day several years ago, I thought for a second... That guy who just cut me off in traffic - to whom am I comparing him? People with mental retardation, like Down's and autism? Are they jerks? Do they deserve to be compared to this guy that just cut me off in traffic, or the dude at the post office who keeps pushing the closing hour up?

Then I had a kid with special needs. Then my special-needs kid got put in a school for kids with special needs. Every time I hear the word "retarded" used as an insult, I think about those kids, and what they'll have to go through in the future. Because sure as shootin', they'll hear their parents call someone a "retard," log it as an insult in their vocabulary, find out that the special ed kids at school are classified as mentally retarded, and start using that word to refer to those kids in an insulting manner.

I know a lot - a LOT - of you reading my blog right now use the word "retarded" in an insulting manner, because every time you use it, I cringe. I know you're not using the word purposefully to hurt people with disabilities, just that you don't think about it that way. I'm not telling you what to say, I'm just asking you to think before you say it. The next time you go to use the word, think about the etymology behind it, and who the word refers to, and who it will hurt. Just as the "n-word" hurts an entire race, the word "retarded," when used as an insult, towards ANYONE, hurts an entire class of people. The difference is, a person classified as mentally retarded generally can't stand up for himself. Many people with developmental delays can't perceive and respond to insults, but they can certainly feel pain, as can those of us who are close to them.

The next time that guy cuts you off in traffic and you want to call him "retarded," think about whom you're comparing him to. The little girl who keeps macking on Ace at school? Ace himself? That's hardly an effective insult. "Bucket of dingleberries," now there's a good one.

I would appreciate your feedback on this, particularly if you have children with special needs. How do you feel when "retard" or "retarded" are used as casual insults?


Shannon said...

What a great post. I absolutely HATE HATE HATE the word "retarded" or anything with "retard" in it.

My son Ashton is severely disabled. I can't tell you how many times I have heard the word "retard" - not directly at him and it kills me. It really should not be a word.

A couple of stories. One. Some people I know were at a party in my hubby's home town. The topic of us came up and a female that used to be friends with my hubby said to another person there "oh, isn't he the one that had the retarded baby?" Lets just say that this other female went up one side of her and down the other.

When I heard it I was angry. I wanted to confront her. But I know that Ashton is NOT a retard and unfortunately people like her will never know the joys that these kids bring to our lives. What bothers me more is that she is a nurse. It is not politcally correct to say "mentally retarded" anymore.

Second story. I was walking with Ashton on our first time in his new wheelchair. I hear a kid say to his mom (who is on the porch) "mommy, look it, that boy is retarded". I stopped dead. I felt my pulse go faster, my fists clench and steam coming out of my ears. I turned to the kid who was about 8 and said "what did you say?" He said to me "I just said he is retarded." I then asked him why. He said "because he is in that chair." It was at this point the mother of this little brat said to me "oh just keep walking." I said "I will keep walking, but you need to teach your kid some lessons." She immediately replied "I don't have to teach him anything, you just need to learn to handle the truth." WOW I was blown away!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Never in a million years was I expecting her to say that to me. As I walked away I started to cry. By the time I got home I was bawling. His FIRST time out in his wheelchair and I hear this.

My hubby was surprised that I wasn't in jail when I told him. But honestly I think I was just SOOO shocked I didn't even know what to say. And once I calmed down I realized that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

People just have NO idea. NONE. They don't know the struggles that we have as parents and the struggles our kids have as "special needs." What has happened to our kids could very easily happen to anyone out there but yet they don't realize that.

This is such a tough thing. I TOTALLY get where you are coming from.

Ashton is NOT a retard. He is a child that was born WAY too soon and has fought to survive. A child that has a damaged brain because of hospital error. I hurt everyday when I look at him trying to do things that he just can't do. And then to hear people throwing around the word "retard" as part of a conversation just makes that sadness even deeper.

I could go on and on forever about this.

Jen said...

hun, I try not to use that word just because of you ;) I use to, ALOT. I won't lie. But, since you said something onthe FFA one day, I don't anymore. *sowwy*

RhondaLue said...

As a mom to two boys that ride the "short bus" (and has a brother that makes fun of short bus kids) I understand your frustration. I had a niece that has since passed away but she was MR and her mother, grandma and everyone still had no problem with the word retard. They just didn't associate it to my disabled niece.

It's interesting how everyone reacts differently. I used to use the word all the time-not so much these days.

~Rhonda (it wasn't me was it?!) lol

Nicole Bradshaw said...

Growing up, one of my friends had a brother with Downs. I learned early on not to hurl that word as an insult, because I could see how much it hurt him (and her) whenever someone did it.

Dr. Wifey said...

my sister is a special ed teacher, and that word infuriates her. i catch myself saying the word sometimes, and i immediately regret it. it sounds so uneducated

Watercolor said...

I agree it should not be used as an insult. It is a medical term. We also shouldn't say to friends who forget something, "what? do you have alzheimers?!" Or when someone doesn't hear us, "What, are you deaf?!" etc. Why insult someone with a valid medical condition.

regan said...

This is why I call people douche faces. That way I'm not hurting anyone but the douche faces with my words

H. Lewis Smith said...


HEATHER said...

I have always hated the word retarded. I grew up next door to someone who was severely mentally disabled, so we didn't use that word.

Bethany said...

I've always had a problem with using "retarded" and my friends grew used to my vigilance to stopping the use of this word. Not that they understood WHY, but they knew it meant a lot to me.

Unfortunately, I had a similar incident with the word "gay". At some event in high school, I started calling everything "gay" (I don't know why - I didn't usually). But I soon found out that the father of a close friend was gay... and standing very close to me a few times when I said it. I've never felt lower, and I've banned that word from my vocabulary as well.

Jo said...

You and I have discussed this topic before. UGH!

I have a niece who is TMI. She is 30 but functions at about a 6 year old level.

I have always hated when people use "retard" that way. And I normally correct people.

It's just like if someone said the bad driver was a woman. Etc.

You put it very well... and other comments here are great too!

Great topic.

Rob the Webkahunah said...

On the side of the democratic response...

Even though my youngest stepson has Downs, I still use the word retarded upon occasion because it is the correct usage of the word. To describe another human being as being learning challenged because they cut you off is essentially correct. They obviusly were unable to learn the simple rule of driver courtesy in school, and therefore have in fact a state of retarded learning ability, as shown by the emperical evidence of them cutting you off.

Now, the real problem here is that our society considers this to be a really horrible insult. I am actually happier than I probably should be about my son's mental retardation because it has given me more years of watching him learn and wonder at the simple things than your average Dad gets... and that to me is a blessing, not a curse.

I would encourage everyone to remember that words only have the power that we grant them in our reactions. Ten years from now, "special needs" will probably be regarded as just as insulting.

Having said all that, if anyone ever called Charles retarded in front of my wife, they would regret it for the remaining 30 seconds they were conscious.

mayberry said...

I'm with Jen. You have made me more aware of what I am saying and I'm trying to overall work on some of my vocabulary choices.

I hope I've never made you cringe.

From the Doghouse said...

Thanks for making us think.

i'm black betty said...

i won't lie...i do use the word. and i know i've used in my blog many times, but i am not using it towards someone who is mentally challenged. i'm using it towards someone who is actin' a fool while driving, etc. yes, i call them tards. yes, i call them retarded, but i do it while i'm alone...not with my child in the car or with me.

i'm very sorry that upsets you, and i do understand why, but i would NEVER call a person with special needs retarded. to me, stupid and dumb are just as bad as retarded and people use those everyday, too.

Christine the Soccer Mom said...

It bugs me, too. I had a great=aunt who was retarded and my nephew is also retarded. They are/were great people, and to use it as an insult is insulting the wrong person.

Ashlee said...

I heard a kid use the "r" word at the playground the other day and I wanted to correct him. I should have, and now I regret it. Bleh.

dhcoop said...

I can honestly say I do not use that word in any instance. I've always felt it was just wrong.

Thank you for making us think about things like this.

sinister_n_evil said...

As far as I know, the classification of 'mental retardation' has been removed from the venacular because it is not politically correct. The current PC term is 'mentally challenged' which leaves the term 'retarded' open to be used as an insult.
Roughly a year and a half ago, the NAACP made a symbolic effort to burry the N-word, but you still see individuals of all ethnicities, intelects and social statuses using it.
It is a personal choice to elevate one's self above commonality and make a difference. We can only change ourselves and the generation of our posterity, the minds that we influence by the example that we set.

It is a learned behavior to omit these words from one's venacular. Just as lashing out verbally is substatution for lashing out in violance. So instead of using the prefered R-word or N-word... I offer some replacements here...

Incompetent Neanderthal!
Uneducated Homosapient!
Single braincelled organism!
You should be Nutered/Spayed!
They shouldn't let you Reproduce!

Erin Steele (previously Domeyer) said...

I have said that word one to many times and truly have tried to take it out of my vocabulary...maybe not hard enough!! It is hard to think about the damage we can cause without someone shaming us when we do!! Thank you for reminding us that many words can be hurtful even when we dont mean for them to be! I am on the watch now!! Sorry!

Kara Melissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kara Melissa said...

I'm surprised at how many people use that word. I've been a teacher for 9 years and before I began my career MR was no longer a term used in the education system. I am now a stay at home mom to a baby boy with CP. I really can't believe how uneducated and negative people are. Why name call at all? People need to read more and increase their vocabularies.

Sherry said...

The word "retarded" and the word "negro" did not start out being insulting words. My autistic daughter is retarded, meaning she is below average IQ. Black people changed the word "negro" to the now famous "n" word, which black people, or African-Americans, regularly call each other without insult. It's only when a white person uses the "n" word that it's an insult. Unless, of course, they are friends with an African-American. Then it's okay. I know this because I've had many black friends in my life. I don't think I've ever had an African-American friend, though.

The word "retarded" simply means that someone isn't as smart as the average person. There's nothing wrong with that. A lot of people are a lot smarter or dumber than others. There are a lot of slanderous words to describe someone more intelligent, as well. "Conceited and pompous" comes to mind, as well as "smart-aleck" or whatever. There will always be words which senstive people will be offended by.

It doesn't have to be this way. Why can't people just be people? Why is it that when people always have to refer to my daughter as "autistic"? Why do I always refer to her as "autistic"? Because that's what she is. 40 years ago, she would have been called "retarded". Just as people with Down syndrome (NOT Down's!!!) were called retarded 40 years ago. Just as anyone who had a low IQ was called retarded 40 years ago.

People who don't think as brightly as someone with an average or high IQ are retarded, although now there is a smattering of classifications. I don't use the word "retarded" but I am not offended when someone does, especially when they are describing someone who has done something incrediby stupid. The politically correct phrase now is "having a senior moment" but that only works for people who are at least as old as I am. I used to call myself retarded when I did stupid stuff, even though I had a daughter who was. But now I just say I'm having a senior moment, which is politically correct, and I hear that said even by people in their 20s. Should that be an insult to older people????

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have a special needs daughter. She is in 5th grade but reads and does math at a 1st grade level. The words "retard" and "retarded" are, to me, more offensive than the worst curse words. I have lectured neighbor kids who have used the words freely around my daughter, and also asked family members (who really should know better) not to use it around us either.

Bird said...

The comments to this post are at least as interesting as the post itself. I taught special ed from 2002 to 2007 and MR (mildly retarded) was definitely in use at that time. Just wanted to share that.

I have really struggled with the people in my life who use this word. These include some really wonderful, major Charlie lovers and I just can't understand how they can love him so much and use that word. When I feeling gutsy I tell them nicely that we're trying to remove that word from our vocabulary due to Charlie's special needs. Other times I look pained and try to ignore it. If a child uses it, though, they are in for either a lesson or a world of hurt depending on their attitude.

And finally, in public school, the word "special" is an insult. That's how quickly kids catch on.

Jennifer said...

Regardless of what may be perceived as a correct or incorrect usage of the word, in general, a little sophistication in the words we use and how we think of others is always the best route.