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Is It Better To Call Someone “Stupid”?

"Spread The Word to End the Word."  Our language frames how we think about others. Help eliminate the R word in everyday speech.

The "End the Word" campaign at r-word.org seeks to eliminate the use of the word "retard" in everyday conversation.

One night, as a young kid learning about the deafness I was born with, I asked my mother how I became deaf. She explained that she got German measles when she was pregnant with me. Confused, I went to the World Book Encyclopedia in the family’s living room to look up the term “German measles.” In a pregnant mother, the encyclopedia said, it can cause “deafness, blindness, or mental retardation” in the unborn baby.

So I had the answer to the cause of my deafness. But, still curious, I asked my mother what “mental retardation” meant. In the simplest terms she could explain to a 6-year-old boy, she said it meant people who had a hard time thinking.

Over the years, in my uninitiated view of the disability world, I always viewed “mental retardation” as a clinical term that described a variety of conditions, including Down syndrome, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), even autism. Now as an adult, I know this term is very muddily defined. For example, autism is not always indicative of mental retardation, as there are autistic individuals who demonstrate extremely high intellectual functioning.  But how is “mental retardation” clearly defined, per se?

I noticed, over the past 10 to 15 years, an increased use of the word “retarded” as a way to insult someone, typically one who made a stupid comment or a not well-thought-out decision. Knowing what it felt like to be insulted as a deaf child, the indiscriminate use of the word “retarded” to describe stupidity did not sit well with me. On the other hand, as far as I could tell over the years, there was little noticeable effort to publicize the inappropriate use of the word “retarded” until recently.

Now, prompted in part by Rahm Emanuel’s unfortunate use of this term to refer to some activist members of his own political party, and the publicity surrounding Sarah Palin’s son Trig, who has Down syndrome, a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to remove the term “mental retardation” from all references in federal law and replace it with “intellectual disability.” Unofficially named Rosa’s Law in recognition of a Maryland girl with an intellectual disability, it will be marked up to a Senate committee on Wednesday and is expected to pass the full Senate.

Making a determination as to what words are both socially acceptable and respectful of a certain group is always a messy affair which takes time to sort out.  However, as long as efforts are continually made to describe certain people with disabilities (PwDs) in more progressive and socially acceptable terms, they always redound toward building mutual respect and trust between PwDs and the community at large. This is a much better option than maintaining the status quo where unthinking people bandy around words describing certain groups of people, as a way to insult others.

If, in a fit of anger, you have to, have to, HAVE TO insult someone, it is far more appropriate to call that person “stupid,” not “retarded.”  At least in Rahm Emanuel’s case, calling some liberal activists “stupid” would have kept the debate squarely on President Obama’s health care bill, which was what the fight was originally all about.

But, ideally, no insults would be even better.

Disclosure:  I am not affiliated in any way with the “End the Word” campaign at www.r-word.org.

3 comments… add one
  • Dianrez May 25, 2010, 1:19 pm

    The word “retard” means slowed, or otherwise delayed in response. An automotive mechanic retards the spark to make the engine run smoother. A computer technician can retard a programming loop for the same result.
    The description “mentally retarded” originally meant those who were slow to learn, but mostly could learn over time. Misuse of the term made it an insult and a damaging label.

    “Intellectually disabled” is another label that has the potential to become misused, similar to “retarded”.

    Labeling is only useful where it is used to channel energies and funds toward a solution. Beyond that, we need a mindset to avoid labels in general.

    • Michael Janger May 25, 2010, 2:11 pm

      Thank you, Dianrez, for your comment. It’s an ongoing battle to avoid negative labeling. It’s such a big world that somewhere, someone is always going to unfairly label someone, so it is up to people like us to keep promoting progressive use of words and labels to describe PwDs. You hit the nail on the head — it’s possible that, over time, a label like “intellectually disabled” could become misused, necessitating another re-label. Ultimately what’s important is to keep everyday conversations about PwDs on the same level of dignity and respect that is always accorded anyone anywhere in the world, whether or not he/she has a disability.

  • Teresa Blankmeyer Burke May 25, 2010, 2:24 pm

    This is a thoughtful piece, Michael. One thought that always occurs to me when I read discussions on the use of “mentally retarded” or “retarded” is to think about what happened historically to former medical classification terms, “cretin”, “moron” “imbecile”, and “idiot” were all used early in the last century and ultimately deemed to be offensive, only to be replaced by “retarded”.

    This gives credence to the point you and Dianrez raise, which is that over time, “intellectually disabled” may fall out of favor. Until then, I think the compassionate response is to listen to people and use the language they prefer. This is easier said than done, I know – so much depends on context.

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