The R word - une femme d'un certain âge

The R word

Note: I wrote this a couple days ago, and hesitated to post it, as I wanted to be sure it came across in the spirit of educating, not haranguing. I’m hoping I’ve achieved that.

Retarded. Celebutard. Fucktard.

These words are now part of the popular lexicon, especially on the ‘net, and I’m reasonably certain that most people who use them bear no personal malice toward those who are mentally handicapped. But I also doubt that most people who use variations of “‘tard” have ever actually known someone who is mentally retarded.

As the mother of an 11-year-old mentally retarded boy, I don’t take it personally. As I mentioned in comments on another blog a couple of days ago, I usually “turn a blind ear.” When a developmental pediatrician actually spoke the word “retarded” when diagnosing our son a few years ago, we cried a bit, but it confirmed what we already knew in our hearts.

No one chooses to be mentally retarded. In my son’s case, his brain damage was one of those freak-of-nature occurrences, a detached placenta that went undetected, and starved his brain and body of oxygen the last several days in utero. If you had asked me when I was pregnant what was the worst thing I could have imagined, it would have been to have a child that was severely retarded. Now that we have one, I realize that there are many outcomes that are far worse. He’s happy most of the time, he’s physically healthy, he’s able to walk and talk and enjoy a good roller coaster ride and basket of fries, and he has an insatiable curiosity about the world and eagerness to learn. He’s surpassed his initial prognosis by several thousand degrees, and based on where we started, we truly feel blessed.

It’s not worth my energy to open up a can of verbal whupass every time I see someone call something retarded that a word like clumsy or ignorant or foolish or ungainly or inelegant would describe far better. We’ve evolved to the point where insults based on race, ethnicity or other physical characteristics are frowned upon in most polite company; let’s be conscious of extending that consideration to those with cognitive disabilities as well.
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  1. Toby Wollin
    July 22, 2008 / 12:29 pm

    People who insist on using those sorts of words about other people have some ‘tard-ay” problems themselves, in my opinion. I watched our neighbor’s son, over a 25 year period, care for his increasingly ill and frail parents, through their final illnesses and deaths. He was their housekeeper, their nurse, their emergency technician, their groundskeeper. After his mom died, he was the one who called 911 when his dad had heart attack(s); he was the one who kept the household going long enough that his dad could spend his last months AT HOME. And when his dad died, his siblings took care of cleaning the house and selling the property and took him to live with them. He had a cleft pallet and had been born with the cord wrapped around his heck – also oxygen starved; before his parents needed his care, he went to a sheltered workshop every day to work and earn a wage. He is a great guy and did what every parent could genuinely hope for – a responsible person who at the end could take care of them, which he did.

  2. July 22, 2008 / 1:26 pm

    My mothering heart goes out to you Pseu. Hug your little guy for me.

  3. July 22, 2008 / 2:01 pm

    Long time lurker here to say that it sounds like your son sounds like a wonderful boy and that it is a shame that people can be so ignorant.
    Your graciousness inspires me.

  4. July 22, 2008 / 2:15 pm

    I was impressed by your measured and generous tone in your comments a few days ago, Pseu, and this post impresses me even more. My younger brother was epileptic, so I was alerted early to the insensitive way people use language (she’s having a fit about it!) without meaning to hurt. Long before the days of so-called political correctness, my parents forbade us to use words such as “retarded” or “spaz” (for “spastic”), and we were the only kids on the block who “caught a tigger by the toe.” I don’t see this attention to language as only being “politically correct” (I hate that term, truly), but rather as simple good manners and thoughtfulness. Your post does important work putting a face on the real people who are harmed by careless use of loaded words.

  5. July 22, 2008 / 2:32 pm

    “Real peace implies something deeper than polite acceptance of those who are different. It means meeting those who are different, appreciating them and their culture, and creating bonds of friendship with them.”
    – Jean Vanier in “Finding Peace”

    Thank you for posting your experience and request.

  6. Arabella
    July 22, 2008 / 2:52 pm

    As usual, you express yourself elegantly.
    When I read your comment the other day I thought: this woman is a natural diplomat – sign her up America!

  7. July 22, 2008 / 10:37 pm

    When I was 20 I worked at a summer camp for mentally and physically disabled youth. After that I worked as the caregiver for one of the teenagers who had cerebral palsy. I have never used the term “retarded” to refer to someone with a mental disability, despite its legitimate use in the medical community.

    The reason I don’t is simple – retarded has quickly become only a pejorative. I don’t find it useful in any way as a reference to someone who has mental disabilities. I’m not saying other people can’t use it – simply that I choose not to in this way.

    It may seem curious then that I do use retarded to refer to situations, organizations, belief systems, etc. I do this because retarded does not refer to a person – it is a general adjective that refers to anything that shows signs of developmental delay. When I call something retarded I am not using it in reference to people – for me, retarded is not a person. A person is a person.

    This is probably of little comfort to you who hear the word far more than you would like. And I cannot begin to guarantee that everyone who uses it does so with any level of thoughtfulness.

    This is sounding more like an excuse to use a word I know causes pain. Perhaps I protest too much.

  8. July 22, 2008 / 11:03 pm

    toby, polly, blackbird, materfamilias, arabella – thanks so much for your supportive and kind words.

    duchesse – that’s a beautiful quote, thanks so much for posting it.

    thomas – I don’t generally object to the word when it’s used in context of it’s original “delayed” meaning. I generally also don’t refer to my son as “mentally retarded” IRL, but did so here to drive the point home a bit. The terms “cognitive disability,” “developmental delay” etc. have become a bit diluted and can be applied to people with wide variations in mental functioning. My son’s mental functioning is in most areas about that of a three-year-old (he’s 11 in August) and though he will probably develop a little bit more academically (he’s learning to read some words and can type a few words on a computer keyboard), will probably never function much beyond that mental age.

  9. July 22, 2008 / 11:47 pm

    Beautifully and thoughtfully written. I’m appreciating the comments as well.

    I would add a couple of words to the let’s-think-twice list. “Autistic” does not mean “self-absorbed” or “insensitive”; it’s a brain-development disorder. And “schizophrenic” doesn’t mean “ambivalent,” “mixed up,” or “conflicting.”

  10. July 22, 2008 / 11:55 pm

    What a wonderful thing to write. I will be showing my teenagers this and hope it reiterates what I have tried to teach them since day one. So many people are quick to use the word retarded for so many different things with little regard to who might hear.
    My nephew is autistic and I am amazed at what people will say when he is standing RIGHT THERE.
    Your son is very lucky to have you!

  11. July 23, 2008 / 2:24 am

    nancyf – good points, I think all of these terms are thrown around too carelessly.

    pearls – thanks! One of my son’s classmates is autistic, and one thing I’ve learned is that just because they aren’t always verbal doesn’t mean they don’t understand what’s going on around them.

  12. July 23, 2008 / 6:58 am

    I’ve been thinking of your post all day long and in light of the sad news that I posted today I’ve been wondering about the philosophical question of what life deals us and how those around us deal with it.
    My friend Joe, whose 24 year old daughter died last week of a rare form of cancer, was struck by the inability of close family members to even be able to deal with his situation.
    I’m hardly surprised by the insensitivity of what you see around you in terms of your son.
    As my friend told me today, his life has been one of daily fear and I believe that the world at large is struck by fear about things that they can’t understand, such as the condition of children like his daughter…and like your son.
    Fear is a wierd thing, it makes people act in unseemly ways. Few of us have had the personal necessity to stare this fear in the eyes and overcome it,
    You and those around have.
    And thank God for that.

  13. July 23, 2008 / 2:40 pm

    belle – yes I think fear is a big part of it. But I do have to say that with with only a couple of exceptions, no one who has been in contact with my son has been disrespectful or made fun of him. Sometimes I see people watching and listening to him, and trying to figure out what the deal is, but because he can really turn on the charm, almost everyone who interracts with him directly is immediately won over.

  14. Anonymous
    July 23, 2008 / 3:16 pm

    Hugs too. I was just reading Martha Beck’s book on finding your North Star (yeah, if anyone sees mine please give me a nudge…) and she writes beautifully of her son with Down’s Syndrome. Something they feared that didn’t turn out to be so bad at all (and their son turned out to be very special in good ways).

  15. ~Tessa
    July 23, 2008 / 5:04 pm

    I too had a detached placenta (which developed into an abruptia and caused an emergency C-section at 36 weeks). This was with my middle son who was, at 2 1/2, diagnosed with autism. I know the particular heartbreak that diagnoses bring. The “greiving” never really ends. Blessings on you and your family.

  16. indigo16
    July 23, 2008 / 7:25 pm

    As a teacher I have spent 25 years correcting and informing students that many words they throw around with careless abandon have an origin. I patiently explain that words like ‘spaz’ and ‘phlid’ are morally and socially unacceptable. Most students are suprised to learn where many of their most seemingly innocuous insults derive from. Most stand corrected and i chip away at the rest until they learn to use something else.
    As a mother my heart goes out to you. Your piece is an inspiration.

  17. July 24, 2008 / 8:18 am


    Such a wonderful and measured post! Thank you. It has spurred a chain of thoughts for me which will see an outing sometime soon.

    Best wishes, Shefaly

  18. July 25, 2008 / 6:48 pm

    Very well put…I’m a bit of a slang nut so I’m guilty of using this expression but now I feel like an insensitive jerk.

    Thanks for making me think!

  19. Anonymous
    July 28, 2008 / 5:56 pm

    Was this inspired by Stephanie Klein’s blog post? Because she’s the blogger I want to reach out and slap most often – for being someone with her own issues, and a preemie child who could have had issues, she can be pretty quick to dish out ugly and stupid language. Which leads us into the whole matter of why on God’s green earth are these people who have so little to say, and say it so poorly, getting book contracts with which to annoy and irritate the rest of the world?

  20. July 29, 2008 / 1:01 pm

    Catching up here, thanks so much to all of you for your comments!

    anon – I haven’t read Martha Beck yet, but have added that one to my list. When our son was first born, someone gave us an article about having a child with special needs. The article contained this analogy: you’ve planned a trip to Italy, all the things you’ll see and do and eat. You’ve looked forward to this trip for a long time, but when the plane lands and you step off, you realize you’ve landed in the Netherlands. After you get over your initial shock and disappointment, you start to discover that there are many wonderful things to enjoy about a vacation in the Netherlands; it wasn’t what you’d planned and wished for, but there are joys to discover and different sights to see.

    tessa – my heart goes out to you as well. Yes, I think there’s a part of us that continues to grieve for the child we didn’t have at the same time we love the one we do have with all our being.

    shefaly – thank you! I look forward to reading your thoughts.

    indigo16 – thank you so much. I do think that kids are often unaware of the genesis of the slang they use. Thank you for helping to make them more aware.

    AiS – please don’t feel bad; we all do the best we can with the knowledge we have. Thanks for your honesty!

    anon – I actually wasn’t familiar Stephanie Klein’s blog until you mentioned it. I went and skimmed the post I believe you were referring to, but need to read it more thoroughly to process where she’s coming from.

    kt – thank you for your lovely comment, and thanks for raising your kids with awareness and sensitivity.

  21. KT
    July 29, 2008 / 10:53 am

    Bravo for you! My children have been raised ABSOLUTELY not allowed to say that word. I find it so offensive when it is used as an abjective such as “This retarded pen won’t work.” Thank you for speaking up, and so eloquently to boot.

  22. LaurieAnn
    July 30, 2008 / 11:26 pm

    Just want to say how much I admire the measured, thoughtful tone of your post. I’m not always quite so controlled when I speak to people who are mistreating/neglecting my 11 year old austic son. My goal in life with my son is to do whatever I can for him now but to “let go” of the outcome; let it be.

    Will you be traveling with your son when you and DH go to Paris?

  23. July 31, 2008 / 1:44 am

    Laurieann – thank you so much. No, we won’t be taking him to Paris, as it’s probably not a vacation he’d enjoy. However we do take him skiing every year (we’ve found a wonderful instructor who “gets” him and has him skiing on his own and doing turns). He also enjoys the vacations we take to Puerto Vallarta where there are plenty of pools and beaches to keep him happy.

  24. July 31, 2008 / 1:48 am

    And it’s tough, isn’t it, when people treat your kid as if they’re somehow being “bad” when they’re just being excited or withdrawn or whatever. That letting go part is the hardest…

  25. vixen55
    September 18, 2008 / 6:45 pm

    Okay, but what word will substitute for “retard” – that will not also some day be viewed as anti-PC?

    “Dummy?” “Stupid?” Those certainly would offend people with low IQs, and their parents, etc.

    “Moron”? This was once a term for mentally retarded people.

    You might respond that we should never insult one another – but in the real world, the harsh truth is that insults are sometimes hurled.

    So what non-swear word substitute IS acceptable? “Ninny”? That might offend gay people…and so on.

  26. September 18, 2008 / 7:51 pm

    Why do we need epithets at all?

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