What You Really Told Me When You Said Retard

Language is powerful.  What we say and how we say it has impact. I love someone with a disability.  I know how language can be respectful and uplifting and how it can degrade and demean.  I have done my research and made evidence-based arguments.  I should be able to discuss this calmly with you.  I shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.  I know I’m right.  But I also know this conversation can be a wedge.  It can make people feel embarrassed and uncomfortable – defensive even. I don’t want to make people feel ashamed and I don’t want an apology.  I know you mean well and have probably never thought about it before.  I’m not judging you, but I want you to understand how the words you choose matter to me and to Evelyn and other families like ours.

When you say, “I felt like a retard!” or “That movie was so retarded!” it hurts me.  Do you know what that word means?  That word was a medical diagnosis.  Twenty years ago, Evelyn’s medical file would have read “mentally retarded.”  And that would have been okay.  Because what that word used to mean is “cognitively impaired.”  Evelyn has cognitive impairment – it’s a fact.  But now, doctors don’t use that term anymore.  Because people started saying it like it was a foul word.  Like you just did.  It’s an insult.  It’s derogatory language.  Retard has been reappropriated in the worst kind of way.

Mommy EvieMade a stupid choice?  You’re a retard.  Something is ridiculous?  It’s retarded.  The insult is being like my daughter.  Think for a minute what that feels like to me.  When you say it, I never see it coming.  It’s like an unexpected slap in the face.  I feel my cheeks get hot.  I want the ground to open up and swallow me, because you think that being like my daughter is terrible.  You said it to demean someone or something.  I think about what it will feel like to Evelyn when she is old enough to understand that you choose to express your contempt and disrespect for someone or something by comparing it to her and my heart breaks for her.  I want to explain this to you, but I don’t know how.

If I do work up the nerve to say this to you, you might get defensive.  You might justify it by saying, you would never call someone with a disability retarded – you didn’t mean it that way.  But that is what that word means.  I mean, just because you say “duck” doesn’t mean duck anymore, that doesn’t change the fact that it does. It doesn’t stop you from thinking of a duck when somebody says it. Try saying her name.  Try putting Evelyn’s name in place of the word retard.  Say, “That’s so Evelyn!” when someone really screws up.   Do you get it now?

If you’re still not sure, you can visit r-word.org and find lots of personal stories about how the r-word affects people. After that, if you still don’t understand, it doesn’t really matter.  Because if you believe in respecting people and their feelings, it should be enough for you to know that it hurts, even if you don’t get why.  It should be enough to choose a different word.  It should be enough to make you buy a thesaurus. Just stop saying it!  I never want my daughter to hear it.

117 thoughts on “What You Really Told Me When You Said Retard”

  1. You spelled ridiculous incorrectly. Also, mental retardation is still a term used in the medical field. There is still a billing code associated with it. Great article, but spelling and facts should be correct.

    1. Actually, they are abolishing the use of “mentally retarded” in the medical dictionaries & DSM, and that’s a fact. I’ve worked in a day training and habitation program for 13 years, and a group home for 6 years before that. “Mentally retarded” is no longer appearing as a diagnoses.

      Also, this mom made typos. Why are you allowing that to take away from her very important message? Why does it bother you, unless you use the word?

      1. I prefer mentally challenged or different abilities. I HATE the “R” word. If I hear it spoken in public I WILL let you know about it no matter the consequences I e never liked that word even before my Down’s daughter was born 29 years ago

    2. You are an asshole Simone. Get a life. Be a spelling teacher. Did you even get the message she delivered. Do you have a child with a disability. Instead of looking for spelling errors, get the message!

  2. This is such a beautiful post. It makes me cringe to hear someone say that word. Thank you for being an advocate for your daughter and all of the other parents and children who have to hear people toss around that word like it’s funny.

  3. I, too, am the father of a special needs child. This post is what is wrong with America. You are too sensitive and hell-bent on political correctness. While you are entitled to your opinion, you need to focus on your child, not daily colloquial language that will not and does not need to change because of your feelings.

    1. THIS is what’s wrong with America? What about shipping jobs overseas or black and brown people being disproportionately sent to prison and/or killed by the state or the fact that NONE of the bankers responsible for crashing our economy have been punished? What’s wrong with America is people trying TO BE NICE and DECENT? That just doesn’t register, dude.

    2. Insulting a whole group of people by comparing them to your ungly outfit, drunk antics, or unglued politician, or Trump’s hair is absolutely your right. Just understand, it speaks to your level of sensitivity and class when you (1) defend the use of a word over the feelings of another, and (2) persist in its use once aware. After all, it is just a word…Why are you sooooo invested in its use?

      You have every right to continue to use that word, and everyone else has the right to think of you as an ill-considered oaf and stop inviting you places, giving you promotions, or generally liking you. Just a heads up when life starts to get lonely.

    3. This is what is wrong with a country? You don’t think the fact people use a medical term to describe something in a detrimental way is what is wrong with it? That the people doing the insulting and not the insulted could be the ones causing damage to the country?

  4. Hi Meredith! I am the editor of the website ForEveryMom.com and I love a couple people with Down syndrome very much, so I like to feature a lot of supportive content for our special needs friends. I would love to re-publish this post on ForEveryMom. Can you shoot me an email to discuss? It’s jrapson@outreach.com. Thanks so much!

  5. I agree that saying the r-word is no different than the n-word. What’s wrong with America is that there is a total lack of respect between people instead of more acceptance. There is too much judging others, whether the color of skin or mental disabilities. “Do not judge others, least you be judged.”

  6. I can see a point here, and dislike derogatory usage of the word, but the word itself does not only apply to medical diagnoses. It is, in fact, a term applied many ways, and means to slow, impede, delay. So, I guess my point is that if the word is used properly, per definition, and not in a derogatory manner, I don’t see any issue. The fact is that people can take any word and make it hateful. That’s the sad truth.

    verb: retard; 3rd person present: retards; past tense: retarded; past participle: retarded; gerund or present participle: retarding
    delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment.
    “his progress was retarded by his limp”
    synonyms: delay, slow down, slow up, hold back, hold up, set back, postpone, put back, detain, decelerate; More
    hinder, hamper, obstruct, inhibit, impede, check, restrain, restrict, trammel;
    “the process is retarded by bureaucratic red tape”
    antonyms: accelerate

  7. such a beautiful post, i agree that some kids with down syndrom may find thaat word a little offensev kinda like my little two year old sister may one day find it offenve because she too was born with a type of down syndrom. (some of my words may be spelled wrong but i dont care.)

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