This past weekend as I prepared to board a flight, I stood in line at the gate waiting for my section to be allowed to board. I was preoccupied with the same thoughts that often come to mind as I travel. I worried that the weather was going to delay my trip home even further. I hoped there would be room for my carry-on luggage on the full flight. And most of all, in my constant quest for efficiency, I wished I could make everyone around me move a little faster.
Standing next to me was a group of college-age travelers. They were enjoying their travel experience much more than I was, and I half-heartedly listened as they joked and laughed with each other. One of the guys entertained the girls by poking fun at them. He called one of them “shorty,” and she rolled her eyes. He made fun of another girl’s outfit in a good-natured, jolly sort of way. And then, it happened. One of the girls, as she jokingly brushed aside his flirtatious wisecrack, gave him a playful shove and said, “You’re so retarded.”
They continued their lively banter, but I gasped a little and held my breath as I looked to see who else might have heard. It was that word. The “R” word. Retard.
In years past, I have used that word, too. I might have used it to describe something that I thought was senseless or unfair or looked silly. We often use it as a slang version of “stupid,” and admittedly it’s a common part of everyday vocabulary. And, vocabulary is contagious; we repeat what we’ve heard others say.
But, I don’t say the “R” word anymore. I know now that the word “retard” isn’t simply a slang word that we can casually throw around in jest. I’m sure that, like me, most that use the word don’t have bad intentions, but they simply are unaware that the word has deep and far-reaching connotations. They don’t realize that for some, hearing that word is the equivalent of a knife piercing their heart. It brings deep, painful wounds.
“For some, the word ‘retard’ is the equivalent of a knife piercing their heart.”
My friend, Lourdes, has helped me understand more about how that word affects people. Lourdes’ brother was born with cerebral palsy, and she vividly recalls their time together as young children.
“People would just look at him, laugh at him and call him a retard without any compassion or care. I remember as a young child, I could not stand this type of bullying so I would just yell at them, throw things at them… anything to defend my brother who could not express himself verbally and could not defend himself. It was so hard for me to understand why people would say such hurtful things to him when he was such a loving, kind and wonderful person. That word always preceded him, and never gave him the opportunity to have people know him for what he really was.”
Although the word is often said lightheartedly, for many people like Lourdes, hearing the word in any context is anything but lighthearted. The term, “mentally retarded” began as a medical term to describe individuals with intellectual disabilities, but decades of public misunderstanding, discrimination and bullying of these individuals have loaded those two words with negative connotations.
When we label someone with a disability a “retard,” what we are really saying is that we don’t see any value in them. We don’t see them as a person; we see them as a diagnosis and as a failure to be what they should have been. But, those of us who love someone with an intellectual disability know the truth. Regardless of their cognitive abilities, these are loving, funny, kind, wonderful human beings whose soul is just as alive as yours and mine. They are worthy just the way they are.
“When someone with an intellectual disability is labeled a ‘retard,’ that word implies that person is of no value. But that simply is untrue. They are worthy just the way they are.”
Any word that might serve to undermine their worth, whether it is intended that way or not, isn’t right. The word “retard” simply cannot be used in any context without bringing those negative connotations with it.
As for me, now that I know what kind of harm that word brings, I could never use it again. Perhaps if more people knew the pain it brings, they would choose their words more carefully as well.