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Retarded Progress of Language

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This piece was picked up by the Special Olympics and used on their website “Spread The Word to End The Word” on March 9, 2011. This meant a great deal to me after years of volunteering for the Special Olympics while in school. Posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on March 10, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

“That is so retarded!”

It’s a phrase I hear all too often in my position as a middle school teacher, but much more worrisome is the frequency with which I hear it said by adults. The Black Eyed Peas scored a hit a few years ago with their song, “Let’s Get Retarded.” I hear colleagues and friends refer to the “retarded” actions of others or themselves. “I was such a retard last night,” I overheard one woman say while waiting in line at Stop and Shop.

Most of us realize that cursing and racial epithets comprise the language of the ignorant and fearful. We are all familiar with the words we are supposed to avoid: few hear the “n-word” without a twinge, and the use of “beaner,” “dago,” “jap,” or “mick” have mostly been purged from decent vocabulary. Somehow, though, the misuse of the word “retarded” often manages to slip past the filter of acceptable society.

The irony is lost on those who use it. Gradually, the word “retarded” has developed a new connotation, often used a synonym for “stupid.” More intelligent people realize that the actual definition of the word “retarded” is that which occurred or developed later than expected. Since the turn of the twentieth century, it’s referred to the state of being mentally underdeveloped, medically defined as having an IQ below 70. However, the term has been turned into an offensive slur by those too dim to realize that its use accomplishes the opposite of what they intend.

In the process of someone trying to say that forgetting to take his briefcase off the hood of his car was a dumb thing to do, calling the action “retarded” implies that he was mentally underdeveloped for the task; in fact, he is unwittingly implying it wasn’t his fault because it was beyond his capacity to begin with! Rather than declaring his neighbors made a poor decision when failing to warn him before he drove off, he instead lets them off the hook by calling them “retards.”

Why not just call both actions “stupid”? More importantly, why do so many continue to turn a medical condition into a pejorative term? Do we still call those in wheelchairs “cripples”?  Would we so easily dismiss it when someone referred to “wetbacks” or “guineas”? The shame that one would expect at the mention of such words is conspicuously absent when using the word “retarded.” Sadly, sometimes it takes a while for the American lexicon to catch up with American ideals. In some cases, organizations see the need to escape these terms completely; in 2004, the Special Olympics International Board of Directors officially stopped using the term “mental retardation,” replacing it with “intellectual disabilities.” On October 5, 2010, President Obama signed bill S. 2781, which removes the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy, into federal law.

More importantly, anybody who interacts with the mentally challenged knows that the mental designation of “retarded” should never be associated with negativity. Imagine that you were challenged with the following characteristics of mental retardation: delays in oral language development so that you couldn’t communicate effectively with others; deficits in memory skills that caused you to forget important information to operate in your world; difficulty in learning social rules that cause you to struggle to fit in; delays in the development of adaptive behaviors so you could learn to take care of yourself; lack of social inhibitors that would allow you to sense when your actions are inappropriate; and finally a pronounced difficulty with problem solving skills that prevent you from being able to overcome all these obstacles. Now imagine that these same difficulties will not only challenge you to find your purpose in this world but also be seen as a joke to others. Can anyone find the logic in this?

On the other hand, those of us who have been lucky enough to have these special people in our lives know how truly generous and courageous they are. Free of the petty motivations and masks most of use engage in daily, those with intellectual disabilities are often incredibly inspiring in their work ethic and earnestness. One need only volunteer at the Special Olympics Games or visit the Kennedy Center to see this firsthand.

In short, the only thing “retarded” to which we should refer is the sluggishness with which we eliminate the hurtful and senseless misuse of this word. To be blunt, it makes us sound “stupid.”