March 9, 2012

Why Are We Still Saying 'Retarded'?

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What is the issue?

Let me first just say that I love name-calling as much as the next girl. It’s a cheap, easy way to reduce a person to a single frustrating, infuriating, or amusing quality. I particularly love slinging abuse on the roads, from the safety of my own vehicle. But every time I hear ‘retard(ed)’ slip into casual conversation, I reflexively wince. We’re an open-minded, educated generation, so let’s insult each other more thoughtfully.

For every time I’ve called someone out for saying ‘retarded,’ there have been ten times I haven’t and later wished I had. And yet, it’s never felt very satisfying, much less effective, to admonish my friends.

Once I was in my dorm room with a couple of guys who lived in my building. We were having a laugh at someone else’s expense when one of them said “That dude’s retarded.” I said, a little too loudly, “My sister’s retarded,” the same way someone would if he were messing with you, except that my sister really does have Down Syndrome. I showed him a picture of my family and watched him recoil. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know.”

The whole thing went exactly wrong. I came away looking over-sensitive and self-righteous instead of him coming away looking ignorant. What bothered me the most, though, was feeling like the only way to make my argument was to invoke my sister. My friend didn’t stop saying ‘retarded,’ he just stopped saying it when I was in earshot.

Here’s what I should have said: think about what you mean when you call someone ‘retarded.’ I’d say I found the term offensive, but on some level, as with any dis, you probably use it to be offensive. You probably meant to hurt the person you’re describing, but did you mean to perpetuate a negative stereotype? Engage in hate speech? As Glee star Jane Lynch said in a recent PSA, “The r-word is the same as every minority slur. Treat it that way, and don’t use it.”

This week, I came across a video, ‘End the R-Word,’ that does what I’ve been trying to do for years: humanize people with developmental disabilities so that maybe, the next time you say ‘retarded,’ it feels personal.

Created by Idaho’s Treasure Valley Down Syndrome Association, the video champions the ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ campaign the Special Olympics and Best Buddies International have jointly led.

The message resonates for me and for anyone with a connection to someone with a developmental disability. If you knew my sister, you wouldn’t call me ‘retarded’ and mean it as a jab. You wouldn’t laugh and say affectionately, “What are you, retarded?” You wouldn’t even use the word to sound self-deprecating — “I’m so retarded.”

But do you really need to know how smart, how positive, how incredible my sister is to remove ‘retarded’ from your vocabulary? Wouldn’t it be enough to know that you longer sound completely ignorant? I’d hope so. TC mark

image – End The R-Word

Nora Johnsmeyer

Nora lives in Boston, where she works for Google and blogs at norasnodes.blogspot.com.

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