Disability is NOT Derogatory – Why You Should Spread the Word to End the Word

“Don’t you think she’s being retarded?” I heard the words coming out of the person’s mouth and realize she’s looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to chime in and nod in agreement. “Don’t you think…” What do I think? I wouldn’t dare utter the word “retarded” in response. I could answer with a simple yes and laugh it off like the word “retard” never came out of her mouth. I could say “Hey, that’s not nice.” Or, I could bring the casual conversation to a screeching halt and confront the issue head on, pointing out why “retard” is just flat out inappropriate.

Does this encounter sound familiar to you? It’s happened to me far too many times to count. Each one of the possible responses comes with a whole set of issues. Sometimes, no matter how passionate a disability rights advocate you are, none of the options are particularly ideal.

By laughing off a word that insults the entire disability community, you send the message that it’s okay to make disability derogatory. If you mention in passing that the r-word isn’t nice but move right on, the person will probably brush it off, maybe saying “oh you know I didn’t mean anything by it.” So of course, if you really want to Spread the Word to End the Word, you’ll have to directly call out the person who used it. And I understand how challenging it can be to confront discriminatory language. Too often, advocates who speak up are told that we’re overreacting. We’re told to relax because “it’s just a word.”

To that, I say: Never underestimate the power of a word. Even if the word “retard” is thrown around flippantly without conscious negative intentions, it arguably does just as much harm as when the word is directly hurled at someone as an insult. Each time a word like the r-word is used, this perpetuates that the entire concept of disability is derogatory, that disability is a negative quality. Although the r-word has long since been removed from the list of acceptable terminology to refer to cognitive disabilities, we need to remember that it was once a widely accepted disability-related term. The root of the problem with using “retard” as a derogatory word lies not so much in that it’s taken on degrading connotations, but in that it denounces disability as a part of the human experience worthy of respect.

I have a disability and I am worthy of respect. All people who have disabilities, be they cognitive, physical, or emotional, are worthy of respect. Our experiences are valid, and they are worthy of respect. That’s why I support the campaign to end the use of the r-word. It isn’t merely six silly letters, and it isn’t just a joke. Disability is an identity I’m proud of, and under no circumstances should disability ever be derogatory.

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Comments

  1. When you come from a community with less power and you assert yourself, people tell you to calm down already. I’ve heard people say, “I didn’t mean ‘retarded’ to insult people with real disabilities. I just mean that girl was being dumb and lazy.” Somehow they don’t see the connection that they’re using disability as insult and connecting that term only to negative things. (People with cognitive or intellectual disabilities are not dumb and lazy, but we still need to keep proving that, apparently.) Keep raising consciousness!

  2. I’m ashamed to admit that I have not been a good advocate on this. I have a pretty close relative … by marriage, but we are still pretty close and friendly … who uses “retarded” quite a bit. He definitely uses it as one of his go-to words for people and things he thinks are “stupid”. I don’t think he’s ever used it to refer to actual people with intellectual disabilities, though I might have forgotten. In any case, I have never spoken to him about it. I don’t think he’s the type to get into an argument about it. My fear I guess is that instead of learning that the word shouldn’t be used, he’d just try to remember not to use it around me. Maybe that’s better than nothing, but then I become the you have to mind your Ps and Qs around. That’s kind of an unpleasant stamp to have in a family that likes being informal and free with salty language … which I actually, personally enjoy! Still, I will try next time to have something to say about it. Maybe the key is to not be timid about it. Just say to him, “Hey, asshole … that’s not cool!”

  3. Thank you for this post! I must admit, when I was younger (elementary to middle school aged) I would use that word- until I met my best friend’s brother, who has a disability and is one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. Ever since then, I’ve absolutely despised the word- there is no place for that! I feel the same way about the word “gay” and how its often used, especially as I have a gay brother. People definitely watch what they are saying in my presence now!

  4. Hi Emily,

    Good blog entry but I do sympathise with you. Apart from the difficulty you have buying decent tea in North America, that part of the world is way way behind the times re: the Language Code, regarding disabled people and appropriate language and terminology.

    In the UK, in accordance with the Social Model of Disability, the term “disability” is not derogatory, it is a description of what society imposes on us. However the term “disabilities” is derogatory, utilises the Medical Model of Disability and – thankfully – is often challenged. Sadly people often use the term “disabilities” in the UK when they mean “impairments”.

    You might like to check out this interesting blog entry:
    http://www.xojane.com/issues/i-am-not-a-person-with-a-disability-i-am-a-disabled-person

    And for Language code, you might like to check out:
    http://www.disabilitybackup.org.uk/language.php

    Drinking Darjeeling, Earl Grey and Yorkshire Tea make me happy, along with the colour vermillion!

    I wish you well!

    John

    1. Hi John – thanks so much for sharing your insights with me! Though I must say, I find some pretty delicious tea here in North America 🙂 I’ve read that xoJane article, and it’s one of my favorites sine I identify as a disabled person. Thank you for the language code link – that’s new to me.
      Warmly,
      Emily

  5. I hate the “r-word”. Always have since 2nd grade when I was called it and always will. As a teenager I hear it frequently but it is often not referring to people with disabilities but everyday annoyances. People don’t understand that that use of the word is just as hurtful. I always speak up and say “That’s not appropriate. Don’t use that word.” Do people always listen? No but its still raising awareness. Similarly I dislike the word deaf as a person with hearing loss when it is used at a hearing person who is not listening, paying attention or gets the answer wrong, like “Are you deaf?” I think it insinuates that people who are deaf or hearing impaired are stupid which is untrue. Look at Beethoven, Marlee Matlin, Halle Berry, Juliette Gordon Low, Derrick Coleman. All deaf/hard of hearing people who did/are doing great things in their lives. It all comes down to respect.

    1. I am so glad that you always take the chance to speak up – though of course I wish the word wasn’t still around so there would be no refason to do that in the first place!

      1. Except that would assume the use was always derogatory. Simply put, that is not true. The word had originally merely meant to slow, or impede – and had meant that long before the clinical/medicinal use, and long before the derogatory use. That’s why, IMO, the focus should not be on complete elimination, as that would be ignorant, and instead focused on the behavior surrounding bullying, etc.

        1. I definitely hear what you’re saying and agree that it wouldn’t be problematic to return to the original intended use of the word, prior to its use regarding disability.

        2. There are several words that we could return to the original definition for, but the reality is that language is a ‘living being’. Words, sentence structure, and rules around language have never been constant.

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