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'That's Retarded': A Short Phrase with Big Consequences

Imagine this: you are sitting on a bench at a park, drinking your Starbucks and reading your book. You look up and see a precious little girl with Down syndrome playing on the playground with her big brother. Although a bit slower than other children her age, the girl’s gentle movements and quiet laughter bring a smile to your face. The sight is picture perfect until three teenagers come stomping into the park. They jump onto the playground swings, loudly joking and laughing. Without warning, the teenage boy suddenly falls out of his swing onto the sand. His two girl companions let out high pitched giggles and one declares, “Wow you are such a retard!” Now, you realize that girl probably did not mean to degrade the child with special needs playing fifteen yards away from her. Nevertheless, by using a word that is associated with mental disabilities to describe an act that was clumsy and embarrassing, this teenager has unknowingly offended you as a bystander, the little girl’s parents and brother, who are right there with her, and maybe even the girl herself, if she understands words already. So what would you do in this situation? Would you ignore the scene playing before you and pretend that nothing offensive just happened? Would you stand up for the girl and her family? Or does it even matter to you?

Although common in our society for over thirty years - emerging mainly throughout the eighties - , the word “retard” was not always majorly used as a degrading term. In the words of one of the biggest anti-R-Word organizations (Spread the Word to End the Word), “When they were originally introduced, the terms ‘mental retardation’ or ‘mentally retarded’ were medical terms with a specifically clinical connotation; however, the pejorative forms, ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ have been used widely in today’s society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, when ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ are used as synonyms for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.” In just these few sentences, the entire argument of why these words are wrongly used is fully explained, and anyone who reads that statement should understand the harm caused when said, as well as the ignorance shown by using a word that is not synonymous with the feeling they are trying to convey. The words “retard” and “retarded” should be discouraged from being used as derogatory slang because this makes the user appear unaware and unintelligent, and it offends multitudes of people.

Every time this word is spoken in an insulting manner, countless people are offended - more than one would ever realize. Often, individuals claim that they are not directly attacking people with special needs by using the word “retarded,” but they are quite mistaken. Andrew Neuhalfen, a student at Legacy High School, is a part of a school club that has lunch with peers with special needs a couple times a month. Once, when the club members asked the kids with special needs what hurts them the most, they all answered that it was when people use the R word in a derogatory context. Andrew said, “They told us that it makes them sad.” In addition, not only are people with developmental disabilities offended by the use of this word, advocates and loved ones of these people are also disheartened when people use it in a deprecating manner. In 2006, Fox TV banned the word “retarded” to be used on air after an episode of a new television series called “The Loop,” which included a derogatory line with the word “retarded,” caused upheaval. The Fox Broadcasting President decided on the ban after a Down syndrome advocacy group complained about the line in the TV show.

Oftentimes individuals feel uncomfortable by the use of the word, but do not feel it is their place to speak up. According to a recent poll taken at Jefferson Academy among high school students, out of 100 random students polled, nearly 40% answered “yes” when asked if they are offended by the use of the word “retarded” in a negative way. However, only 22% of students responded that they would speak up and tell a user of the word not to say it; 6% said that they would laugh and encourage the behavior, and the rest answered that they would ignore it, either because it does not matter to them or because they do not feel comfortable speaking up. The difference in these numbers can create an obvious conclusion: a lot of people are not okay with the use of this word but will not say anything. Therefore when someone says, “I’m so retarded!” after spilling a drink or forgetting their homework, they are making more people uncomfortable than would first be expected because many people will not declare how they feel about it.

Some may argue that people who are offended by the use of “retarded” and “retard” in a joking manner are incredibly oversensitive on this issue. But licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Laurie Arnold, mother to a 4 ½ year old girl with special needs, explains: “It makes me sad to think that at the core of it being used as a derogatory term is a harsh and terrible judgment against people like Julia, my precious, beautiful, perfect little Julia. There is very much an anti-"different" mentality in our culture - different scares people, so to feel better they make fun and insult and put down. I know that not everyone who uses the word means to be hurtful but it IS hurtful.” Laurie continues by explaining that when people use the excuses “I didn’t mean it like that” or “You’re being too sensitive,” most often they know that it is wrong to use the word but don’t want to admit it, as that is human nature. She states, “In most cases, if someone is educated about why this word is offensive, they will stop saying it. However, some people become defensive, which shows that they are not oblivious to the harmful nature of the word in that context.” Others still throw out that political correctness has been blown up into too big of an issue in today’s society. A writer for The Washington Times declares, “If political correctness is allowed to thrive in the United States, it will be the death of the republic. It would treat all Americans who utter and express a viewpoint outside the bounds of political correctness like lepers.” Indeed, people would say that if the words “retarded” and “retard” are discouraged from use in everyday language, what is to stop people from protesting other extremely offensive words that are strewn throughout all types of media? The answer is simple: the word “retarded” has a second meaning, unlike curse words. It has its rightful place in vocabulary, and when it is stolen from that true meaning and thrown into crude jokes and derogatory terms where it does not even relate, it makes people more upset than normal curse words.

The fact is that the word “retarded” does describe people with developmental disabilities and special needs; the word is what medically defines their chromosomes, genes, brains, and bodies. That being said, when you, a friend or a piece of technology does not perform at a preferred level and is declared “a retard” or “retarded,” you are also calling it a mistake, dumb, stupid, clumsy, inept, brainless, dim, and incompetent. In turn, by using a word associated with special needs, you are also calling that adorable little girl with Down syndrome at the park a retard. You are calling your cousin with Autism retarded. The boy at school, the children at the mall, the girl at church; you are associating the word “stupid” with innocent, carefree people who do not deserve any ridicule just by using the same word, “retarded,” to describe both their conditions and your slow computer or your friend tripping on a stair. The bottom line of this issue is that too many people use this word in a negative way, a way it shouldn’t be used at all. It is time for the people who ignore it but feel uncomfortable by its usage to stand up and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to help those who are being crushed by the weight of a boorish and uncouth world.





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