Tuesday, March 22, 2011


When I hear someone casually use the word "retarded," it makes me cringe, makes me uncomfortable.  It makes my skin crawl.  When I started my blog, I made a list of topics I wanted to blog about and this one has remained untouched 7 months later.  I don't know how to approach the subject because I know people will think I'm too touchy.  Too sensitive.  Too PC.  I'm not, really, but this subject is something that is close to my heart.

I started reading a blog called Enjoying the Small Things with the entry linked up here - it's the story of the author's daughter's birth.  It wasn't until Nella Cordelia was born that Kelle knew her daughter had Down Syndrome.  Her story of that day and since is a beautiful one, both in pictures and words.  Hers is not a special needs blog, but a blog about a family in which there is a child who has special needs.  I'm bringing up Kelle's blog because she wrote a great piece that inspired me to go ahead and express my thoughts about using the words "retard" and "retarded" in a derogatory way.  I encourage you to read said inspiring post about Down Syndrome Awareness here.

My first memory of using the word "retard" or "retarded" is also the last time I used it in a derogatory way.  I was 13 and I had just met the person who would become one of my best lifelong friends.  We were talking on the phone and I said something was retarded and there was a pause on the other end.  She said "my sister is retarded" and without thinking, I joked "yeah, mine is too."  My friend explained to me that her younger sister had Down Syndrome and instantly I felt like the biggest fool with the biggest foot in the biggest mouth. 

From that moment on, I made a conscious effort not to use the r-word so flippantly.  Five years later, I found myself working as a front end manager in a grocery store.  Some of my favorite customers were staff and residents from nearby group homes for individuals with developmental disabilities.  They were regulars and it always brightened my day to talk to the regulars - especially the residents who had also begun to recognize me.  A couple of the staff must have noticed that I enjoyed interacting with the residents and suggested that I apply for a job with their agency.  Coincidentally, my friend had been working there for a few months loved it. 

I applied, got the job, and ended up working there for 4+ years (until I relocated to the midwest).  Caring for and spending time with individuals with severe mental retardation and various other physical and mental diagnoses became a passion of mine.  I was their friend and advocate.  These amazing people that I cared for and about were as much my friends and family as I was theirs.  I certainly spent more of my waking hours with them than I did anyone else.  My friend and I eventually moved in together and had several sleepovers with our favorite residents.  We took them to our homes for the holidays so they wouldn't have to sit at the group home.  We included them in so many aspects of our lives outside of work.  It was a unique and special job. 

They drooled.  They limped.  They used wheelchairs.  They made a mess when they ate, if they could even feed themselves.  They wore incontinence briefs and sometimes had accidents in public.  They yelled at the movies and made a scene at restaurants.  They couldn't talk. 

But guess what?

They taught me about trust and not just tolerance, but acceptance.  They reminded me that the greatest joys are found in seemingly insignificant things.  They showed me how much can be said without words.  They exemplified inner beauty.  More than anything, they taught me about judgment.  Judging and being judged.  Being non-judgmental.

Back when I worked with these wonderful people on a daily basis, I was hardcore.  Anytime anyone said "that's retarded" or "you're such a retard" or called someone Corky, I made a scene.  Sometimes I just got mad, but most of the time I tried to explain why it is no longer okay to use these words, references, etc. to make a point. 

I heard a lot of excuses and but-but-buts when I tried to correct people.  Here are some faves:

But-but-but-but, I wouldn't say that to their face.  Besides, I have a cousin that has Downs!  This makes it twice as bad.  First of all, if you wouldn't say it to his or her face out of respect, why would you say it behind his or her back?  And if you have a cousin or uncle or nephew or gerbil with Downs, then you should know better, jerk!  How would your cousin feel if he knew you were making fun of him behind his back?

Well, I didn't reeeally mean you/he/she is a RETARD.  I meant you're dumb/silly/stupid, etc.  Well, then.  Let's have a vocabulary lesson.  "Retard" is a verb, not a noun.  Retard means "to delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.)"  If you mean to say dumb, stupid, or silly, say dumb, stupid, or silly. 

Oh, I don't mean anything by it.  Don't take it so personally.  I do take it personally.  Know why?  Because I spent 40 hours a week for four and a half years with the people that you are making fun of when you use that word and it feels like a personal attack against people that I love.  When you say it, you aren't complimenting anyone or anything.  You are perpetuating a societal culture of intolerance towards individuals with developmental disabilities. 

We have allowed this dehumanization to go on long enough.  The terminology keeps changing because we insist on using whatever term is used to describe people with disabilities and make a joke out of it.  In the early 1900s, the terms moron, idiot, and imbecile were used to describe different levels of mental retardation.  No one associates those terms with people with disabilities anymore because they are all slang for unintelligent, dumb, stupid, etc. 

I think a lot about what we are teaching our kids when we, as parents, use words like "retard" and "retarded."  If a child hears these words repeatedly used in a derogatory fashion, they will assimilate them into their own vocabulary and thought process.  Retard = bad/negative/dumb/stupid, etc.  (The same goes with calling things or people "gay" in a derogatory fashion, but that's another topic for another day).  It only makes sense to me that the association teaches children to be intolerant/fearful/unaccepting when they are exposed to someone who is developmentally delayed.  Who drools, limps, uses a wheelchair, can't talk, and still has accidents when they are 15 years old.  Someone who makes a scene at the movies or the mall. 

Are you teaching your child to walk out of their way to avoid that person at the mall?  Or are you teaching them to smile and say hello?  I want to teach my kids from an early age that there are all kinds of people in the world and their abilities and disabilities make them no more or less human than one another.  It's important to me that my kids know that they are not superior and have no right to make fun of another child because he or she has disabilities and walks or talks different and has to be in a special class at school. 

It's my dream that my kid is the one that stands up for children with special needs and goes out of their way to talk to them, not to avoid them.

When did I start caring or worrying about being too PC or offending someone that has offended me?  At some point, I think I got tired of fighting a losing battle and decided it wasn't always my battle to fight.  So now, most of the time, when someone says the "r" word, I just cringe and think to myself "I wish she/he wouldn't say that anymore."  Here I am, fighting the good fight once again.  If you use the word in ordinary conversation (like so many others do), please make an effort replace it with a word that better reflects what you really mean.  Is that too much to ask?



  1. Bravo Candice! Great writing..
    Another social worker actually used that word during a staff meeting last week. We all just stopped breathing for a minute. People need to connect the negative "gay" terms with the teen suicide rate as well. Be nice out there, we are all struggling with something!

  2. Thank you, Candice. I appreciate your passion and conviction. And the lecture too...this is not one the area's that I have heightened awareness and I should. However, when someone says "that's so gay" I nearly come unglued. Many parallel themes here.
    Consider me a recruit.
    Love you. Love your blog.
    :) Molly

  3. Thanks, Molly! That means a lot. If I got one recruit, I guess the long, drawn-out blog was worthwhile! :)