by Lawrence Downes
This Wednesday is the fifth annual “day of awareness” in a national campaign to stop the use of the word “retarded” and its variants. As a medical label for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the R-word used to be neutral, clinical, incapable of giving offense. But words are mere vessels for meaning, and this one has long since been put to other uses.
“Retarded” and “retard” today are variations on a slur. Young people especially like it: as a weapon of derision, it does the job. It’s sharp, with an assaultive potency that words like “moron” and “idiot” lost sometime in the days of black-and-white TV.
The campaign against it, called “Spread the Word to End the Word,” is heartfelt and earnest in a way that makes it vulnerable to ridicule. I know people who care about language who do not see themselves as heartless and who do not see “retardation” as anything to get worked up about. To them, banishing the R-word for another clinical-sounding term is like linguistic Febreze: masking unpleasantries with cloying euphemisms.
In this, as in other cases of discrimination, it’s probably best to let those affected speak for themselves.
Here is John Franklin Stephens, a man from Virginia with Down syndrome who serves as a “global messenger” for the Special Olympics. He has written op-ed articles giving lucid voice to thoughts you may never have heard before:
“The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness,” he once wrote in The Denver Post. “We are aware when all the rest of you stop and just look at us. We are aware when you look at us and just say, ‘unh huh,’ and then move on, talking to each other. You mean no harm, but you have no idea how alone we feel even when we are with you.”
“So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’?,” he asked. “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.”
Last year, after the right-wing personality Ann Coulter sent a Twitter message about Mitt Romney and President Obama — “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard” — Mr. Stephens wrote her a letter. “No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much,” he said, with such persuasive graciousness as to put other writers to shame.
As Mr. Stephens makes clear, people can be thoughtless and cruel, or well-meaning, and never know the damage their words can do. The campaign is about inclusion. History is full of stories of people from outside who fought their way in. To those with intellectual disabilities, it sometimes seems the battle is just at the beginning, when little victories — like an end to insults — are hugely important.