The comments thread on Russell’s great post brought up the tendency among kids to still say, “That’s so gay.” Which reminds me of something similar, i.e. “That’s so retarded.” Or “retard.” Or “short bus,” or whatever.
The campaign to stop using the word “retarded” is a major rallying cry among advocates for the disabled. I can’t check facebook without seeing some exhortation to “spread the word to end the word.” (I’m friends with a lot of disability advocates.)
I bristle a bit when I hear people say, “That’s so retarded.” I do, however, think it is something of a dead metaphor. People usually don’t actually have in mind an image of an intellectually and developmentally disabled (I/DD) person when they say it. I was kind of shocked when a nurse at my kid’s doctor’s office said, “Oh God, I’m so retarded” after she had led my son (the one with I/DD) and me to the wrong room. She is always absolutely lovely to him, and I’m sure would never mean to insult him. The fact that she said it in front of him indicates to me how little she has a picture of an actual person with I/DD in her mind when she uses the word. So while I think people ought to strive not to say it as a mark of respect, I understand that usage can be reasonably innocuous.
I tend to think phrases such as “retard,” (as opposed to retarded) “short bus,” etc. are much less of a dead metaphor and are very insulting.
I don’t really have a problem, as so many disability advocates do, with using “mental retardation” or “retarded” as a descriptive term, as long as it’s clearly not a pejorative. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First of all, some people really don’t understand what’s going on with my son unless I use that word. If I say he’s developmentally delayed, they respond, “Oh, I’m sure he’ll catch up.” Which requires me to reassure them that he won’t. Awkward. Or if I say “intellectually disabled” they think it’s similar to their understanding of “learning disabled” and that he just needs a bit of extra tutoring or something.
Also, advocates tend to get very offended when doctors or school systems use the phrase “mental retardation.” I think the intent in those cases is clearly a description, and not an insult. But because of the history of use as a word as an insult, advocates wish to erase it from simply descriptive uses as well. I’m okay with that, but I’m pretty sure that if you get rid of MR and replace it with I/DD, I/DD will trickle down to the general public as an insult. When I was growing up, it was the era of “special” and “differently abled.” And that is exactly what we called each other on the playground.
Think of just how many insults are derived from words that were initially descriptive terms, often used by doctors, about the disabled: idiot, moron, imbecile, dumb, stupid, lame, lame-brain, cretin, etc. Recently, a disability advocate called out Ricky Gervais for using the word “mong” — apparently a British slang term for someone with Down syndrome. He defended himself by claiming it was a dead metaphor (although he later backed down and apologized). But I was a little disconcerted to see that the disability advocate suggested he use the word “idiot” instead.”
I worry that the focus on ending the “r-word” has become the primary issue with which disability advocacy is associated in the minds of the public. (Remember when Sarah Palin promised in her convention speech to be an advocate for people with special needs and their families? The only instance of this that I can recall is when she called out Rahm Emanuel (although not Rush Limbaugh) for using the r-word.)
And, in turn, I worry that the public has only so much attention for us, and I’d rather focus on something lobbying for something of more concrete utility. Rallying for, say, greater community inclusion might introduce everyone to people with I/DD. This would not only improve the lives of those with I/DD and the community lucky enough to get to know them. It might also be the most helpful way to reduce the tendency to use the most recent appellation we’re choosing to use as an insult.