retarded/retard

A few vignettes:

— Substitute teaching, I oversee students working who share some conversation in the process. I overhear them calling things “retarded.” After the third time, I chime in and tell them it’s “inappropriate.” I don’t give a reason why.

— A girl tells the story: in Texas, that hand slapping game where one person places their hands palms down and the other person places their hands palms up under them and tries to slap the other person’s hands, that game is called “Retard.” If you slap the other person’s hand before they move them, you get to call them a Retard. The brother of the girl telling the story has Down’s syndrome. She recalls the day she came upon another boy having taught her brother that game and playing it with him multiple times before she arrives and stops them. In the course of their playing, her brother had been called “Retard” to his face at least 4 times. She tells this story as a play, all the while playing “Retard.”

— I ride in the back seat of a car with two people, one I know well, the other I’ve just met. They hold a conversation about job interviews. The one I just met refers to those who do unseemly things during an interview as “retarded.” He uses it as an adjective, twice. I say nothing. We arrive at our destination.

— My brother calls something retarded. I call him on it. He says he’s sorry. (But he still said it the first time.)

— I listen to a radio program where a woman speaks of our disuse of the word “retarded” when referring to people with mental handicaps. She mentions we still use “retard” in music to refer to slowing down. She continues speaking of her work with people with mental handicaps, omitting the no-no r-word.

For the past few months, I’ve been having a bit of an ongoing conversation with my parents (my dad mostly) about the power of language, or more specifically, perhaps, about the power of language to put people in boxes and more specifically yet how we can best describe people using language. I would suspect that when you hear the word “retarded,” if you had to categorize it as a “positive” or a “negative” adjective, you’d likely stick it with the negatives. (It should be noted that I’m all against dichotomies, and would prefer to place it on a positive/negative spectrum, but that’s another topic entirely.)

I haven’t done much research into exactly why or when “retarded” became a derogatory term, but for me, as long as I’m still connecting the idea of that word a general group of people for which the work innately is a mean factual description, I certainly won’t be using the word in a derogatory way when relating to others, and as long as it continues to be a derogatory term, I won’t use it as a descriptor for those with mental handicaps – both situations will likely last until my death, so hopefully you’ll never be hearing me speak either “retarded” as an adjective or “retard” as a noun, unless we’re discussing the word itself.

Language is powerful, and I think it’s important that we all recognize just how much of an impact it has on our thoughts and feelings to those around us. As the saying goes, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”

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