The Word That Ruined A Whole Book For Me

The selections my book club chooses are often hit and miss. So I was happy to dig into what seemed like some good chick lit, This One Is Mine, about a cast of characters in LA. On my train ride home from work yesterday, I was totally immersed—until I got to page 233. There, a recently married woman who’s newly married and pregnant realizes that her husband is on the autism spectrum: “Sally had played everything right. The dating, the proposal, the pregnancy, the wedding. The one thing she had overlooked was that Jeremy was retarded. And chances were, the baby in her belly was, too.”

Ooof. I slammed the cover of my Nook closed. It didn’t matter that the character who’d had the thought was mind-boggling shallow to start with, or that the book was fiction.  The word “retarded” is upsetting to me, in any context. Couldn’t the author, someone who specializes in creative writing, have come up with different, non-offensive language to describe the situation? I felt mad that I’d paid $8.89 to download the book.

“Mental retardation” used to be a medical diagnosis, but over the years the slang “retard” and “retarded” has come to be synonymous with fool, stupid, loser, someone to be loathed. As the parent of a child with intellectual disability, I’m acutely aware of the social challenges Max has to overcome in life. It’s both painful and disturbing to hear people using that word, and I regularly speak out against it. It’s not like I think eradicating the word will change Max’s life, but getting conversations going about attitudes toward people with disability can help raise the respect bar.

Other people (even parents) accuse those like me who speak out against the word of being oversensitive. I could care less. The truth is, in our culture words have meaning and yes, they can harm by perpetuating negative stereotypes about people with special needs.

Would you call the Social Security Administration too sensitive? This summer, the SSA announced it would drop the use of “mental retardation” in its listing of impairments used to evaluate claims, substituting “intellectual disability.” Are the majority of the states too sensitive? This summer, Florida became the latest state to pass a law changing the language in government forms from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability.” Would you call the President of the U.S. too sensitive? Back in 2010, he signed legislation dropping the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy.  As a student at Florida International University noted, “Mental retardation is a negative term. It sounds like an insult.”

Exactly.

I didn’t have the heart to read the rest of This One Is Mine, so I skimmed it in order to be able to talk about it at our club meeting. Rest assured, I’ll be discussing the word that distracted and distressed me. This cause is mine, and I will keep speaking out about words that demean people with special needs—and doing whatever is within my powers to help make the world a better place for my son.

From my other blog:

If you ask people not to use the word retard

Would you call my child a retard?

Quiz: Do you get why this word hurts so much?

Image of book with pirate flag via Shutterstock

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