Today is Spread the Word to End the Word Day. I first wrote this piece 2 years ago and I still haven’t come up with anything better to say about this word. It continues to be used carelessly and abundantly. It is low hanging fruit for comedians, it is a one-stop insult for people who don’t want to think harder or act with more kindness.
We are currently watching a primary process in which the person spewing the most hateful rhetoric about pretty much everyone, including the disabled community, is poised to take the Republican nomination. We have a society and a culture that praises and encourages hate, and I feel more than ever that I am swimming upstream. In the year 2016 people still do not choose kindness. Or love. Or even basic human decency.
In short, I’m tired of people defending their use of the word. I’m tired of people thinking it’s ok. And I’m past the point of wanting to be nice about the whole thing, asking politely for people to stop. Using this word today, in this time, in 2016, is a conscious choice. You can’t claim ignorance anymore.
Some people seem to think it’s “overly PC” to ask others to stop using this word. Some people think we’re being overly sensitive, making mountains out of molehills, or looking for something to rage against. People try to explain it away as “well, it’s a medical term!” or “I don’t mean it that way!” or “I’m saying it about myself!” And my personal favorite: “The First Amendment gives me the right to say whatever I want!!!” (Actually, no. Quick civics lesson for you: the First Amendment says the government cannot persecute you for saying what you want; it does not give you full, unrestricted license to be a jerk without any consequences.)
Here’s the thing: you don’t get to decide if this word is offensive or not. You just don’t.
The people for whom it is a slur get to decide.
That’s right, “retard” is a slur. Period. End of story.
Would you ever dream of telling a Jewish person they don’t get to be upset about the slur “kike”? Or telling a person of Hispanic decent that they are being “too PC” when they don’t want “spic” to be used as a slur? The fact that we think for even a second that we get to decide on behalf of people with cognitive disabilities that retard is not insulting is a sign of the infantilizing, patronizing way we treat people with disabilities in our society.
But you know what? I think sometimes us parents stall the discourse surrounding this word. We often say “that word hurts my kid.” So here’s my challenge to you: address it just as you would address someone using a racial slur. Instead of saying “that word hurts Rowenna,” try saying “that’s a slur and that is unacceptable.” Don’t open the door to “I didn’t mean it that way” or “I would never say that about your child!” What would you say if you heard someone say the n-word? Would you argue that it hurts the black community, or would you straight call the person on their hate speech?
It’s hard. It’s daunting. People may not understand. But we’ve got to nip “I didn’t mean it that way” in the bud.
People with intellectual/cognitive disabilities are the target of the word retard, no matter how people try to explain it away by saying “I didn’t mean it that way.” Plain and simple, no ifs ands or buts about it. When you say “Oh, I’m such a retard,” you are literally saying “my foolish behavior is exactly that of someone who has a cognitive disability.”
And that is a crappy thing to say.
If you are not the target of the slur, you don’t get to decide if it is offensive or not. People with cognitive disabilities are asking – and asking rather politely, I might add – for people to stop using it. I’m not nearly so polite. I’m telling you to knock it right off.
You can try to justify it, explain it away, attempt to lessen your guilt, but that doesn’t change what you said.
So stop saying it. It’s really that simple. Just stop saying it.
And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here are my three favorite pieces about the word.
Dave Hinsburger’s Excellent Piece about the R Word (and if you don’t read Dave’s blog, it’s fantastic and worth reading more)
Rob Rummel-Hudson’s Fantastic Piece about the R Word (another fabulous blog to follow)
And if you’re up for an additional, albeit much more diplomatic challenge than the one I’ve posed here, I encourage you to read Courtney Heigele’s piece about doing more than just not saying retard. Her post can be found here, over at the Pudge and Biggie blog. If you aren’t already following her blog, please take the time to read – she is by far one of the best bloggers in the Ds community, artfully combining honesty and humor to talk about life with an extra chromosome.