There’s a word people love so much that when you ask them to refrain from saying it they’ll defend it and sometimes fight you on it. That word is “retard,” and when I and other parents have spoken out against it, we’ve gotten a whole lot of arguments in return. Today is a day of awareness for Spread The Word To End The Word, a campaign created by the Special Olympics to raise awareness about the rampant use of the word—and why people should rethink using it. This seems like a fine time to respond to some of the recent comments I’ve gotten from people on Facebook about using the word, and clear up misunderstandings. Here goes:
“The word ‘retarded’ is a word like any other…. It has a definition and an implication and they’re not the same thing.”
Reality check: The word “retarded” derives from the term “mental retardation.” Years ago, that was a clinical diagnosis used to describe people with intellectual disability. But words evolve and change meaning, as words tend to do, and the words “retard” and “retarded” have evolved into insults. In 2010, Congress itself replaced “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” in federal health, education and labor laws with the term “intellectual disability.” The word “retarded” has morphed into a slur—why many people are shunning the word.
“I have family members who have mental and physical disabilities and yes they were called ‘retarded’ or ‘retards’ and they learned how to recognize people who are too ignorant to get out of their own way.”
Just because the word “retarded” wasn’t a big deal when we were growing up doesn’t mean it isn’t today. Besides, back then the slang “That’s so retarded!” or “You’re such a retard!” weren’t as rampant as they are today. So many parents have explained how hurtful it is to hear their child with intellectual disability being associated with an insult. People with intellectual disability have spoken about how insulting and demeaning the word is. As this Special Olympic athlete/global messenger explained, “So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are someone that is not your kind. I want you to know that it hurts to be left out here, alone.”
“My son is Mentally Retarded, that is the proper diagnosis for his condition. I do not think we should stop using clinical terms because of the misuse of the words.”
See above—”mentally retarded” is no longer a diagnosis. In fact, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the mental health bible— is replacing the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” Even though some doctors, schools and organizations continue to use the term “mental retardation,” make no mistake, it is a defunct term.
“The way ‘retarded’ has been used for at least 20 years is as a synonym for ‘stupid.’ If you’re so sensitive about someone using a word that bothers you that you aren’t capable of understanding the intent behind it, you need to grow a thicker skin.”
Right. It’s being used as a synonym for stupid. And loved ones of people with disabilities do not want them associated with the word ‘stupid.” As for the thicker skin comment, have some heart: If a parent tells you that a word is painful, if people with intellectual disability say the word is hurtful, is it so hard to quit using the word?
“I do think people should be cautious of what and how they say things but it’s not the end of the world.”
Oh, to be sure, there are many, many more pressing issues. But this is something that very much matters to parents of kids with special needs. Our kids have so many challenges to overcome in this world; using respectful language is just one thing, one very simple thing, people can do. And so, we will continue to speak out about it. And we will continue to ask: Please, just use another word.
Here. I made this video. I hope it better helps you understand.
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.
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.
This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at AutismWonderland.
A few faces of who you hurt
Dear Celebrity on Twitter (and all the tweeps who follow you):
You have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of people following you. Whatever you tweet will most likely get replied to, retweeted and/or favorited over and over again. Your tweet will be hashtagged and shared on Facebook and Instagram. It will be shared with your followers, their followers and so on.
So when you use the r-word to insult someone or something – it goes way beyond your social media reach.
Tweets, blog posts and Facebook status updates will condemn you for your cruelty, ignorance and lack of compassion for a community who have done nothing to offend you, the way you have offended them.
And this is what you want. It’s all free publicity (especially when you have a new book/show/record coming out).
You have an agenda. I get it.
But please understand – as a parent of a special needs kid, I have an agenda too. And it’s much more complex and critical than your need to be pop culture relevant.
It’s not about being oversensitive or playing word police or taking the Internet too seriously.
It’s about respect, equality, dignity. These are the basic qualities of life not necessarily granted to my child simply because he has special needs.
You are not the first person or celebrity to use the r-word. Sadly, you will probably not be the last. Because the r-word is a word so deeply embedded in our culture, used by people who do not understand why it is so hurtful.
You do not understand why the word is so hurtful.
My son is 6.5 years old. His name is Norrin and he has autism. And with your use of the r-word – you have hurt him. You have hurt millions of children and adults living with any kind of disability. In 140 characters or less, you have sabotaged and diminished every single thing a special needs parent advocates for. You are perpetuating this stereotype that individuals with special needs are stupid, ugly, worthless and less than.
And I am not a celebrity. I’m not a person you’d follow on Twitter. And chances are my words will be out of your reach. But I hope to reach your followers. I hope they will read this and take the time to understand.
This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at AutismWonderland.
Before we became parents, my husband, Joseph, and I had a pretty active social life. We went out to the movies, went out for dinner with friends, went to parties, we entertained.
During my pregnancy and after Norrin was born, our social life dwindled down a bit. (I honestly cannot remember the last movie I saw.)
After Norrin was diagnosed with autism, our social life practically became obsolete. It pretty much consists of therapists and appointments. And as our lives changed, so did our friendships. Some ended while others got stronger.
Be Aware. Autism Awareness is a two way street. Become familiar with the diagnosis (at least the basics) and common terminology. Your friend will need you more than ever and if you have an understanding of the disability—that will make them feel less alone.
If you have “typical” kids, take the time to explain autism to them. It would be great if you could schedule a play date. Especially if your child is a year or two older—the older child can act as a role model for the younger one.
Be Understanding. Those first few months after a diagnosis, your friend may be distant or distracted. There may be times when they’re just not available. They may not pick up the phone when you call. It’s not that they don’t care about you—they may just be too overwhelmed to talk.
Understand that it will be hard for them to commit to plans. Childcare will always be an issue. Understand that they may need to cancel plans at the last minute. It’s not that they don’t want to spend time with you; it may just be a bad time. Keep extending invitations—they will be there when they can. You can always offer to come over with a bottle of wine and chocolate cake. I bet they’d really like that.
Just Listen. There will be times when your friend needs to talk, vent or complain. They may need to cry. Let them. You don’t have to say anything. It’s okay if you don’t offer advice (especially if you don’t have a kid with an autism diagnosis). Just let them talk and get it all out.
But don’t let autism rule the conversation. Try to talk about things that will make them laugh. Your friend will want to know about you too, she/he may be too preoccupied to ask.
Make An Effort. Make an effort to understand their kid’s speech or gestures. Make the effort to get to know their kid. Ask questions. Take a genuine interest. Ask if you can sit in on a therapy session to have a better understanding of what it takes to parent a child with autism. If you have children, volunteer your child to participate in the session. I know our therapists love when “typical” kids join the session—it makes for great social interaction.
Offer To Help. There are many things about an autism parent you may not know. One thing you need to know about autism parents is that they rarely ask for help. At least I know I don’t. Maybe you do want to help and are just waiting for your friend to ask. If your friend is anything like me, they will not ask.
Instead of waiting to be asked, take the initiative. Ask “How can I help you?” or “What can I do to help?” If you pose the question in those terms, they just may take you up on the offer.
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?
“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.”