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It happened again yesterday.  I was having a meeting at work with a brand-new hire, a super-smart guy (way smarter than me, for sure — by the books, anyway) who just finished journalism school. We were going over his job description, and he said it about something, I’m not sure what.

“That’s so retarded!”

Or some variation.

I paused for a minute, thought about it, considered the photos of Sophie all over my office (where we were sitting), wanted desperately to keep going but instead interrupted gently (I hope) to say, “Hey, I have a kid with Down syndrome. Please don’t say use the word `retarded’ around me.”

He was horrified and apologetic, made me promise not to tell one of his professors — a guy, he explained, who also has a kid with Down syndrome and had recently asked the same of him. (I wasn’t surprised; I know the professor. Small town.)

“So,” I told a couple of colleagues a few minutes later as I sat down to a production meeting in another part of the building, “I just had to ask our new hire not to use the word retarded around me.”

The guy sitting next to me put his head in his hands. Just then, the production manager for the paper took his seat. Within three minutes he’d used the word, too.

This time I didn’t say anything. No one else at the table did, either.

It’s too fucking exhausting. And here’s the thing. Part of what irks me here is that instead of simply asking people to stop using “retard” as a slur, instead as a society we are trying to outlaw it. That is dangerous.

Plus I actually LIKE the term mentally retarded — well, as far as such terms go. It’s a medical definition, I like the word “retard” as in, “to slow down” — it just sounds right. Fire retardant. Satisfying, right? As far as I’m concerned, replacing “mentally retarded” with terms like “cognitively disabled” and “intellectually challenged” is just asking for a new slur.

And it won’t stop my colleagues from saying “retard.” It won’t stop it from smarting. What do the lawmakers think, that people like me will say, “Oh, pshaw, go right ahead and call each other retards! My kid’s cognitively disabled!”

That’s not what Sophie will get called behind her back in junior high, no matter what our lawmakers say.

How about we embarrass people who use the word instead? That might not work on junior high kids, but I’ve found it effective with just about everyone else. And I think it could work, at least a little.


Not so long ago (not in my memory, not much anyway — thankfully) people used the word “Jew” disaparagingly — constantly. “He Jew’ed me down!” “Don’t be so Jewish, pick up the tab.” And so forth.

No one actually ever banned the word Jew (not that I know of, anyway). They educated people. Today people may still not like Jews, may still think they are cheap, but at least they know it’s not socially acceptable to say so in most situations.

I get the semantics. This is way different. And yet it’s not — on the few occasions someone’s used the word “Jew” around me, I’ve tried to work up the courage (and usually have) to say something. I know others have, top — for decades — and today I don’t have internship candidates from one of the (supposedly) best journalism schools in the country telling me something’s “so Jewish.” But those same kids have no problem using the word “retarded.”

I doubt anyone made a video (or would today) of Jewish people explaining that they aren’t cheap. But I’m to see the awareness campaigns going on around the country vis a vis the word retarded, particularly this past week.

To be honest, though, I don’t think any of it’s working. I hear the word more and more (and more and more and more). But I was touched by the video I’m posting here, and if you’ve read this far, I bet you will be, too. It was made by folks at Marana High School outside of Tucson:


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Tags: Filed under: Down syndrome, retarded by Amysilverman

10 Responses to “Don’t Strip the Books of “Mentally Retarded,” Just Quit Using “Retarded” as an Insult”

  1. Ouch. I have only heard it twice at work & got immediate apologies when I glared at them. So this is my line for you because WTF with your co-workers? Also, because I really WANT someone to say it, just to see if it works.

    “Retarded”? Really? Are you 8? Do you make fun of alzheimer’s patients? War vets with head injuries? Which cognitive disability exactly are you referring to? Just the congenital ones? I think my xx year old is going to hear that enough on the playground, I don’t think she needs to hear it from her mommy’s coworkers.

    In my head, at least, it’s shaming. Dunno about reality. I’ve also heard all the gentle educational “it’s about respect” lines and not making enemies, etc and after much due consideration decided I’m more the bomb throwing mamma bear type.

  2. I find “I have a kid with Down syndrome” to be very effective — you don’t need to say more than that. Except with one co-worker; that ended in a really ugly fight and our boss actually weighed in (and not on my side!) but — since then, I haven’t heard that co-worker use the word retard in my presence. So I consider it a victory.

  3. When I taught 6th-grade, I found myself daily telling my students, “Gay is not an insult.” I think “retard” and “gay” may be semantic parallels. It took a very long time to convince my junior-high students to switch their language. Daily reminders didn’t do it. It took inviting in our school’s designated gay-awareness-person (San Francisco schools all have one such person in every school), who quite calmly told my class about his life and quickly became their hero.

    So now one classroom of San Francisco kids is enlightened, somewhat.

    I think I am either oblivious to the insult “retard” — I really don’t think I’ve heard it in a while — or maybe journalists use the word “retard” more than the rest of us.

    I agree with krlr. I think your coworkers deserve public shaming, and “Are you eight? Which disabled people, exactly, do you mean?” seems like a great way to start.

  4. I can’t believe that these “young professionals” who expect to get a job in a business writing, um, words, would go into an interview or meeting using anything but the professional English they just spent years and dollars in school perfecting.

    I do not have a child with cognitive disabilities, but do have a sister with Aspergers, worked in group homes, and class rooms with mixed populations, and have always had someone in my life, family, or community who has been affected by this slur. I agree that the use of it is getting worse. I heard it much less when I was a kid from kids than I do as an adult from adults.

    When I hear someone use it, I frankly, am usually at a loss. Most of the time I can muster a “please don’t say that around me or my children.” The last time I heard it used was from someone I really respected and wanted to get to know. Until they said something was “retarded” and then my heart dropped as did any respect I had for them.

    I like krir’s suggestion, and maybe next time I will try:

    ‘Really? Are you 8? Do you make fun of alzheimer’s patients? War vets with head injuries? Which cognitive disability exactly are you referring to?’

    …if I can get past the shock and anger.

    Thanks for sharing Amy, I love your blog, and miss you!

  5. I am so with you on this. I’ve thought for so long that taking the term “mentally retarded” off the books is only going to open us up to new slurs – before you know it, people will be saying, “Man, I am SO developmentally disabled! [snicker snicker]!” Plus, we won’t even have the defense anymore of saying, “Hey, that’s a medical diagnosis, and when you use it as an insult, it’s really hurtful.”

    And yes, fighting against use of the R-word often feels very much like a losing battle. It’s so freaking ingrained in our culture. I had Finn’s OT say to me, “That’s reatrded!” I shit you not. And when I calmly called her out on it, she, of course, defended herself, saying she didn’t mean it like THAT. (Well, how the heck DID you mean it then?). My oldest son has had teachers at his middle school and now his high school say it – to an entire classroom of kids. My husband has had to ask his boss – the managing partner in a law firm – numerous times not to say it (and this guy has a son who was born with a club foot – you’d think it might make a person more sensitive, but apparently not.)


  6. Yep, I’ve heard some of Sophie’s therapists say it. I’m sure I said it myself, pre-Sophie. It’s so slammed into the public vernacular it just sounds right to say it, wrong as it is. Not that that is an excuse. The lawyer story is priceless.

  7. I completely relate to the whole “it’s fucking exhausting” part. So much is so fucking exhausting when you’re navigating all these systems — it’s a wonder we all don’t go insane.

    I really enjoyed the honesty of this post and believe, with you, that we should just keep plugging along, perhaps not with a sense of mission, but with a sigh. I don’t know if you ever read Robert Rummel Hudson, but his pieces on the word are terrific. He basically concludes that if you use the word, you’re an asshole and there’s nothing we can do about assholes.

  8. I used to think nothing of saying it but since I’ve known you, I’ve eliminated it from my vocabulary except in a clinical way. I’m teaching Leah not to say it. I’m embarassed that I was so insensitive in the past.

  9. i used to use it, too. ME. ugh.

  10. My mother taught me when I was very young to never use the word. My father’s half brother was mentally retarded and my mother told me how much it hurt my grandmother when people said it. Back in the ’40s my grandmother’s neighbors signed a petition to try to get her kicked out of the neighborhood – they thought her son was deviant and would hurt their children. I’m always shocked to hear people use the word and it seems like more and more are using it. It’s just ignorance – I’m sure if 98% of the people who used the word had someone explain to them why it was such a derogatory term they would stop using it.

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