Celebrities Who Apologize For Using The Word Retard: Does It Do Any Good?

Last night, I Googled “Joe Flacco” to see what news would crop up. The quarterback’s contract is expiring, and there was much musing about whether it would get renewed. Already, the incident earlier in the week in which he’d described a cold-weather climate Superbowl as “retarded” was at the bottom of the list of headlines on my screen.

And so it goes: Another person in the public eye slips up and uses the word “retard,” outrage ensues, an apology is made. Flacco joins the ranks of celebs and notables who’ve done the same—Lady Gaga, LeBron James, Margaret ChoRahm Emanuel, John Lackey of the Red Sox, Pennsylvania GOP leader Jim Roddey. Unlike them, however, Flacco immediately caught himself, saying “I guess I shouldn’t have said that. I think it’s stupid.”

In recent years, with the launch of the Spread The Word To End The Word campaign and with more advocates and parents speaking out, there’s been growing awareness of how derogatory the word “retard” is toward those who have intellectual disability. People (or at the very least, their publicists) are getting that it’s a wrong word to use. Every  apology from a celeb further reinforces that: Oh, look, a star quarterback is saying sorry. Oh, wow, Lady Gaga is. Note to self: Must be a bad word.

In that way, celebs and their headline-making mea culpas are doing a public service for kids like my son, Max. Thing is, this is not just about a word. Sure, on the surface it is: “retard” is an epithet, a slur, an insult. Use another word. But it’s the underlying message that’s key: What matters most here is respect. It’s about treating people with intellectual disability with equality. It’s about not looking at them and seeing differences but embracing what they bring to the world. And a simple “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone” says none of that.

I’d like to hear an apologizing celebrity explain why it’s a regrettable word choice. All Flacco said was, “It was a bad choice of words” and “I didn’t mean to offend anybody but I definitely apologize for that.” Lady Gaga’s apology: “I consider it part of my life’s work to push the boundaries of love and acceptance. My apologies for not speaking thoughtfully. To anyone that was hurt, please know it was furiously unintentional….” All LeBron James had to say was “I want to apologize for using the ‘R’ word after game three. If I offended anyone, I sincerely apologize.”

These polite apologies are the kind your elementary school might have elicited out of you if you’d done another kid wrong. Of course, some of these people must genuinely feel bad (Flacco has done good work with the local Special Olympics). Yet if they really and truly wanted to make amends and help people with intellectual disability, they could have said a little something about people with disability deserving respect, same as any human does.

Because after the dust has settled, that celebrity or notable person will go on with their fame and game. Kids like my son and others will go on living in a world that typically sees them as very different, perhaps even pathetic.

Parents, school programs, and inclusionary sports and other activities can encourage kids to accept those with different abilities and treat them as equals. There’s still not enough of those things. But what would it take for a celebrity in the hot spot to say a few thoughtful words about respect, acceptance and equality? Not much. Heck, it would make them look even better. Sincere or not, written by a publicist or not, people would take note.

Apology accepted, celebs—but also regretted. Because it could have been so much more.

From my other blog:

Let’s talk about people who cling to the word retard

Video: Would you call my child a retard?

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


Image of Joe Flacco via Shutterstock

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  1. by Amanda Jean

    On February 1, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    I don’t think that retarded has the same connotation as it did even 10 years ago. I have never used retarded in regards to someone who was disabled in anyway. The way it is defined is indeed ugly, mean and hurtful. The way most use it today has nothing to do with it. Look at how many words have changed meaning. Gay, badass and so on. It’s all about context.

  2. by NoAdditives

    On February 1, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    I think it’s ridiculous how much power we give to words. It’s not the words that matter so much as the intention. Today, and for at least 20 years, retarded has been used as a synonym for stupid. If that’s offensive, get over it. Are you also offended by the word “slow” which has also been used to described handicapped and mentally challenged people? I bet not.

  3. by MsSpeducateNYC

    On February 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    I think what you’re missing is that retarded is still used in the medical field to classify a group of individuals with intellectual disabilities. “Stupid” is not and we can also all agree that “slow” is an exceedingly disrespectful term for this group of individuals.

  4. by Ellen S.

    On February 3, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Well said, MsSpeducateNYC. Amanda Jean, it’s true, most people would never use the word “retarded” to insult someone with intellectual disability. But when people use the word as a synonym for “stupid” or “loser,” it perpetuates the idea that people with ID are stupid/losers. The word’s just got a bad connotation. It’s easy enough to use another word, no?

  5. by Annie

    On February 3, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    It has nothing to do with context, just like the n-word. Simple question: Are you going to use your words to hurt or to heal? If absolutely anyone is offended, shouldn’t you think about not using it?

  6. by NoAdditives

    On February 4, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Do you eat meat? Does your car need gas? Do you buy products from companies who test on animals?

    That stuff is offense to some people. Does that mean you should stop doing it? Should you change everything about your life to ensure that absolutely no one is offended? No. That would be ridiculous.

    This country is too obsessed with limiting exposure to what others find offensive. If you are offended by something, that’s your issue, not mine. There are things about this world and about people’s behavior that I don’t like. That doesn’t mean I expect them to modify their behavior to make me happy. The truth is that for the most part, people don’t use the word retarded in a way that is meant to be offensive to those with disabilities or impairments. They just don’t. That is some people’s interpretation of it, and it is their choice to be offended by it. It’s just a word. If we start banning words that are offensive we’ll be left with very little in our vocabulary. So, it is important to take a look at the context in which any word is used. Because for the most part, people aren’t trying to intentionally offend or hurt others.

  7. by Anchel (@AnchelK)

    On February 6, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    I don’t understand how people just don’t get. There is no need to use the r-word as a synonym for stupid. It’s not about anyone being ridiculous, or about people limiting what others can say. It is not about being politically correct. And there is really no clinical reason for using the word either (in fact it has been removed as a proper clinical reference in many settings). It’s about being decent and respectful. And I don’t think that is too much to ask. And while we’re at, words have power. A lot of power. They shape and change society. They give us another method to communicate. They can hurt and they can inspire. So why is it too much to ask that we make responsible, conscious decisions about how we use them.

  8. [...] of contrition are performed, and ‘teachable moments’ are declared. While few walk away terribly satisfied with the whole transaction, we at least have a bit of hope that we have nudged the future decency [...]