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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Retard: The Meaning Behind the Word

Retard according to my dictionary is a noun. Offensive slang. Used as a disparaging term for a mentally retarded person. An organized campaign has been undertaken to purge this word our vocabulary. Major inroads have been made and any usage of the word is frowned upon. People such as Patricia Bauer has chronicled the effort to ban the use of the word retard on her website and it is well worth reading what she has written and the many links she provides. Her website is veritable wealth of information. To date, I have refrained from writing anything about how the word retard is used. Perhaps being around my son as he has grown has made me hesitant to enter the fray. I hear him and his friends use the word retard far too often. I correct them once in a while and the response is always the same--rolling of the eyes and belief I am being ever so sensitive. This bothers me but not too much. They don't understand the history and legacy of exclusion as it pertains to people with a physical or cognitive deficit. They have never been taught a thing about disability rights at school and I am certain not a single person within my son's peer group has ever heard of what took place at Willowbrook Institution 30 year ago. At an abstract level they understand people with a cognitive deficit are easy targets and my son and his friends would agree teasing or picking on such people would be wrong. But in their minds the word retard has nothing to do with people who have a cognitive deficit. When I make the connection they respond with silence--they do not see any link. And here is the important question: why do they not see the link? The answer is not complicated: people with a cognitive deficit are the most stigmatized and isolated population in this country. They are segregated in "special schools" and group homes. The bigotry they face is overwhelming and makes everything I have experienced as a paralyzed man pale in comparison.

The latest controversy regarding the use of the word retard is tied to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Before that President Obama got in trouble for his derogatory remark about the Special Olympics on the Tonight Show. All this has become political theatre. Sarah Palin, perceived to be an expert on disability issues because she gave birth to a child with Down Syndrome, called for Emanuel to resign and then turned around to defend Rush Limbaugh for his repeated use of the word retard on his radio program. Sadly, this is what national politics has deteriorated to. Lost among the furor and screaming is the social and economic plight of people with a cognitive deficit. Funds for "special education", adult education, job training for adults, and support for group homes are being slashed nationwide. Waiting list for essential services are the norm and no one cares. Out of sight and out of mind; the most vulnerable among us are suffering. In place of a real debate about why such services are being cut we get political pundits discussing Palin's silly Facebook demand for Emanuel to resign. Gosh, it is embarrassing to be an American sometimes.

Progress can be made for those that want inclusion. I see such inclusion when I ski. At adaptive programs I have been exposed to a range of people with cognitive issues I did not know existed. At first, I was ill at ease. I had never been around people with such conditions before. What I have learned is that such people are just like me. They have strengths and weaknesses. They have likes and dislikes. They have good days and bad. They are not the problem. We are the problem. We meaning our society that needlessly discriminates and isolates people with cognitive deficits. Language may be malleable but one thing has not changed: the broader problem is a legacy of exclusion that remains firmly entrenched. Thus I fully support the campaign to end the use of the "r" word. But it is not just the word that I want to ban. I want real social change to take place. I want to see children and adults with cognitive deficits embraced by society as valuable members. Not so long ago people with physical disabilities faced the same challenge. This battle has not been won in spite of 40 years of legislation that has sought to empower people such as myself. Laws are one thing and the social demand for equality something else entirely. People have been taught inclusion for people with a physical disability is the right thing to do. Attitudinally people may accept me provided my inclusion is not too expensive. But when it comes to inclusion for people with a cognitive deficit there is no such effort or even pretense of inclusion. I realized this a few years ago at a minor league hockey game. My son and observed a group of people with cognitive disabilities show up to a game. I pointed this out and told him what a great idea it was. Anyone I told my son can enjoy a hockey game. However, within 30 minute I saw a this group of people surrounded by a sea of empty seats. It was painfully obvious the other fans had all moved in mass away from them. This deeply disturbed me and brought back many painful memories when it was socially acceptable to complain about the presence of people with a physical disability. That night I recalled the times when I was refused service in restaurants, was prevented from boarding an airplane because I was deemed a flight risk, or barred from entering a multitude of buildings because there was no need to build a ramp. Progress has been made for me and millions of others with a physical disability but I lament the utter lack of progress made for those with a cognitive deficit. This is a human rights violation worthy of discussion.


Claire said...

So, what you are saying is, behind the word "retarded" is social isolation, marginalization and neglect. In all the many posts and rants and raves I have read about that word, I have never seen it put that way. This is the first time it makes any sense to me and the first time I would consider wiping it from my vocabulary. Great post. Thank you.

emma said...

Acceptance and social inclusion for people with cognitive disability is a whole different ball game. Someone like my son can't advocate for himself, can't go out and be "included" by himself. As a parent, I can do so much, but practicalities, lack of support and general weariness of constantly "swimming upstream" just tend to beat you down.

While I try not to get oversensitive about language, I can never understand why people can't see that using "retard" as an insult, would not also be an insult to people with cognitive disability. Using it as an insult implies that people with cognitive disability are "lesser" than others from the outset.

I often wonder how well Dimitri will be accepted in society as he gets older. Sadly, I think there will be many who move away from us too.

emma said...

p.s. I do think the Including Samuel Project in the US sounds promising though.

william Peace said...

Emma, You are correct inclusion for people with a cognitive disability is different. In part this is because many cannot advocate for themselves. I also understand getting weary of fighting for inclusion. There are days I do not leave my home simply because I cannot face others who think I am akin to superman because I can drive a car or conversely think my presence is offensive. What I share with your son however is the notion that I am not fully human. This is demeaning and something I will always rail against.
Claire, Yes, behind the word retard is a history of exclusion and social isolation that has not changed too much. Notorious institutions such as Willowbrook are a thing of the past but group homes are still stigmatizing to many. We pay lip service to mainstreaming children but too many kids with cognitive issues end up in special schools or resource rooms. Exclusion is alive and well in this country.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog from the blogroll at FWD, and I really appreciate this post. I have been saddened, alarmed and deeply troubled by the continued use of the word retard. I was appalled by the "political theatre"(awesome phrase, I going to borrow it) that recently transpired re: Palin et al. You echoed my own thoughts about how changing words can amount to nothing more than window dressing if it is not accompanied by substantial attitudinal change. It's one of the reasons I'm somewhat ambivalent about the PC movement. In my case, I'm continually stigmatized and othered with the incorrect and derogatory label "midget". I'm glad I found your blog and look forward to reading more. - G

william Peace said...

Georgina, Thanks for the kind words. I read a few posts on your blog and will be a loyal reader. I am unfamiliar with the specific issues little people encounter but suspect it is akin to what I experience as a person that uses a wheelchair. Being the other is never easy regardless of the reason why. Like you, I want fundamental social change not simply a change in language.

Kowalski said...

Thank you so much for this post, William.
Due to the way I communicate and move I'm considered retarded, it doesn't offend me, what offends me is that we're treated with condescension so often. I call it the "Susan Boyle treatment" (It's when people never assume competence.) This attitude has to go along with the slurs. To just ban the r-word so people can feel smug and self-righteous is not enough.
Here's a great video that describes it well, although I'm different in that I can speak.
I've been writing a few posts on the subject as well and plan another one called "Ban The R-Treatment", if you're interested, they're here.

@Georgina, count me in on the people who enjoy your blog, I'm glad I've discovered it and look forward to exploring it more.

TheWiredOne said...

Even the revealing of a cognitive disability can result in a display of bigotry. When I told a group of people who I had been friends with since kindergarten that I was autistic, they immediately started throwing food at me, told me to leave the area, and called me a retard and other variations of such. It completely crushed me that they acted this way when I revealed a secret that I had been keeping for years. A lot of my relatives say that "even though" I have revealed that I was autistic, I understand my brothers' decisions to stay in the closet about it. They say this to depict me as being respectful even though I understandably don't agree with their decision. This is not true. It is because I have made that decision to come out of the closet that I understand why my brothers have not revealed that they're autistic to anyone outside the family. Since revealing that I was autistic, I have been met with some bigotry, often from people I thought were really my friends.

william Peace said...

Kowalski, Thanks for the link to your writing and the video. I enjoyed both very much. I also liked the phrase the "Susan Boyle treatment". I can directly relate to this as people often treat me differently, as though I was subhuman. Treating any human this way is simply wrong.
Sadder, There is a difference between a visible and invisible disability. When one chooses to reveal an invisible disability the response if routinely hostile. This forces people to continue to hide their disability and hence a part of their humanity. I wish I knew how to change this social dynamic.