Why Do PARENTS Of Kids With Special Needs Use The Word “Retarded”?!

“I know moms of special needs children who still use it. Kinda a shame,” read the Facebook comment. A user left it in response to a post I’d written about people who cling to the word “retard”—including, of all entities, The New York Times.

Parents like me have repeatedly spoken out against the word, most recently this mom of a child with intellectual disability and this dad of a boy with Down syndrome. The word “retarded” has become a slur that means “stupid” and “loser.” The term “mental retardation” itself has been banned by Congress from federal laws, and will be replaced in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with “Intellectual Development Disorder.”

Whether you’re laughing calling someone a “retard” or saying a person has a diagnosis of “mental retardation,” the bottom line is the same: the words are demeaning to people with intellectual disability. They perpetuate the idea that people with ID are stupid. Period.

So why is it that parents of kids with disabilities still insist on using this term?

Some more comments I’ve received on posts about the word from parents of kids with disabilities:

“I don’t have a problem with ‘mental retardation.’ To me, it’s simply a medical term that has been inappropriately appropriated by mean-spirited people.”

“I have a family member with Down syndrome, and we have always used the term ‘mentally retarded’ in the most clinical, descriptive way. I’m very used to it and comfortable with it used as such.”

“My daughter has been diagnosed with moderate mental retardation. I have no qualms about using the words ‘moderate mental retardation’…it’s what she is.”

I get distraught when the word “retarded” is unthinkingly used. But when parents of kids with special needs insist on using it, I am also completely baffled.

Why? I ask. Why? 

Just use another word or term that doesn’t offend kids and adults with disabilities, and distress those of us who love them.

As one mom said, “I can’t get over the pain in my heart when I hear the words ‘mentally retarded.’ We could talk all day about how it’s a clinical, technical term but the fact is, it’s become a phrase commonly used to hurt people and it means something else, other than just clinical, to the rest of the world.”

You can take a pledge to end the word here.

More posts from my other blog:

Sometimes, we are THAT special needs family

Would you call my child a retard?

If you ask people not to use the word “retard”


Image of mother and child via Shutterstock

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  1. by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez

    On October 9, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    I have a sister with ID and I resent the use of the r-word.

    But it also really saddens me to hear autism moms use this word. And it’s even worse when a therapist uses it – I’ve heard it. I think people think this word is just a word and too often rely on the fact that “they didn’t mean it that way.”

    Thank you for continuing to write on this and raising awareness!!

  2. by jj doe

    On October 10, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Because ‘retard’ is offensive, and ‘retarded’ is an actual term. It means slow, held back. Kinka like Jew and Jewish. Small difference, but with notable differences withing the community.
    And with ‘retarded’, we have an idea of the issue.
    And any other more-PC term – like ‘special needs’ – could also mean a missing arm, or blind.
    And will eventually be found offensive within the group.
    In HS, in the 60′s, the remedial classroom was room 101. You don’t think that room number didn’t quickly turn into a slur, amongst the other students?
    Some parent or student will be offended by anything. I’m not denying their point. But where do you draw the line?

  3. by Lorraine G.

    On October 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    “Just use another word or term that doesn’t offend kids and adults with disabilities, and distress those of us who love them.”

    Well obviously, according to your article, not everyone “who loves them” is on the same page here. It would be helpful to your cause if you who are against the R-word in all circumstances please do not take the position of Word Police for those of us who use the word with sensitivity. Using “retarded” or “retard” as an insult is, of course, abhorrent. But to me, that’s not anywhere near the same as saying “my daughter has CP with mild mental retardation”. Not everyone is on board with ending the word altogether.

    Maybe we will see your side eventually, or the R-word will be replaced in the medical and journalistic realm with another word. In the meantime, for the sake of your own blood pressure and mine, don’t get upset every time you hear someone use it respectfully. It is probably on it’s way out. And many people, like me, don’t appreciate being lumped together with bullies who call kids Retard.

    Also, to read your article here, it sounds as though the word “retarded” has just recently become an insult. I actually remember back 40 years ago, in my schoolyard days, it was widely used as a pejorative. Maybe I have spent more years than most understanding that this word has two very distinct usages.

  4. by Rachel

    On October 16, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    While I understand Lorainne and her point, it is a sad reality that “we”, those of us “who love them” don’t really have an option to NOT speak out against the use of the word Retard in all of it’s forms. This has become an all or nothing fight. “We” can talk about the situations of how it is used properly ’til the cows come home, only to get sour milk. “We” who love “them” are now obligated to speak out…..that is If “we” ever want “them” to be treated equally in all facts of society.