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The Campaign to Spread The Word to End The Word

In the last year or so I have become more and more aware of the use of a word that makes me shudder each time I hear it used in conversation amongst young people and even moreso by adults. Its use in everyday language seems to be rampant.

This word I am referring to is “retarded” and its close cousin, “retard.” Perhaps, you use this word as you converse with others and if not, I am certain you know someone who does so on a regular basis. The term “mentally retarded” was a medical term that came into use in the late 1800’s to replace the former descriptive terms of Imbecile, Moron and Idiot, to name a few, which were terms used in the medical and psychological professions to describe those with intellectual disabilities or delays.

Prior to the 17th century, society shunned those with intellectual disabilities and deemed them less than human. It wasn’t until the start of the 17th century that an English Doctor determined that intellectual disability was caused by structural damage to the brain, which was acquired in utero, at the time of birth or perhaps later in life due to an accident or as the result of disease or infection. This was also when we relieved families and society of the “burden” of people with intellectual disabilities and placed them in
institutions, which were also commonly known as asylums. But humans are very creative and whisking people with mental challenges away into a large building (you know the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.”) wasn’t enough. We needed to eradicate this affliction and so the practice of forced sterilization and the loss of the right to marriage were placed on children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Adolf Hitler even took it upon himself to aid the world in getting rid of the “retards” and what many people may not know is that hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities were amongst the thousands of people murdered during the Holocaust.

Thankfully, by the 20th century, society was moving away from isolating and rejecting people with intellectual disabilities. A movement began to provide more than just the basic needs (food, water and shelter) to these members of society and thus, special education teachers, programs, children’s camps and more assistance to families to help care for their family members at home were implemented. Since the 1960’s to the present day, we have seen the closure of institutions to the point that they are almost non-
existent now except for smaller group homes to house only 8% of those with intellectual disabilities.

I share this history with you because I think that, as Maya Angelou says, “When we know better, we do better.” Before change occurs, it is usually helpful to see where we have come from which often sheds light on practices and behaviours that are shocking and perplexing even though at that particular time in history the actions and belief system of the society at large were considered the norm.

When you question another’s use of the word, “retarded” or “retard” in their everyday conversations, some will argue that they certainly don’t mean anything bad by it or they don’t mean it in that way. Some will even go as far to defend the use of it by rattling off the official definition of the word which is, “to make slow, delay, keep back, or hinder” or according to Webster, “Having a limited or below normal mental ability.” And finally some will accuse you of being too sensitive and that you need to lighten up.

The bottom line is this: The word is offensive and derogatory. Period. It is an outdated medical term and when casually thrown around as an insult in conversation, it perpetuates the belief that people of differing abilities especially those with intellectual disabilities are “stupid” and “dumb” and are not a valued part of our society.

I encourage every single person reading this to reflect on your use of this word and begin catching yourself when you say it. Maybe even go so far as acknowledge to the person(s) you are speaking with that perhaps it was a poor choice of words if it habitually slips out of your mouth. By doing so, you take responsibility for accidentally using the word and you inform them that the use of this word is not acceptable. Educate your teenagers and children on the use of this word and explain to them why it is hurtful. Make your home, work space and classroom a “No R-Word Zone.” Cut this article out and share with your friends, family members and co-workers who may not be aware of the impact of the words they speak.

The people who are affected most by the senseless and irresponsible use of this word, those with intellectual disabilities and those who care for and work with them, thank you for your consideration. Now that you know better, do better.

You can visit www.r-word.org for more information.

Originally published in the Whitewater Cobden Sun newspaper March 2011