Sunday, March 28, 2010

A PSA on the use of 'retarded'

I know that as of yet, I haven't really introduced myself. Or talked about the nature of my own disabilities. So with this entry, I'm going to try kill two birds with one stone; I'm going to write about the latter while at the same time venting about something related that I've always had a huge bug up my ass about.

If you've been keeping up to date with issues that keep arising in the small but rapidly growing disability issues blogs, then you may have noticed some seem to come up more frequently than others. One is the use of ableist language and the role it plays in perpetuating the oppression of PWD. Certain terms are 'off limit's. And one among these is the word 'retarded'. Why? Because using it as in insult stigmatizes people with this condition and only reinforces a system of privilege and oppression.

But there's another reason I personally dislike the word retarded as pejorative. And that's the fact that many people using it in such a way really haven't the first fucking clue as to what it actually means.

Mental retardation -- according to wikipedia -- is defined as "a generalized disorder, characterized by significantly impaired cognitive functioning and deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors with onset before the age of 18. It has historically been defined as an Intelligence Quotient score under 70." The entry also notes that although at one time the definition "focused almost entirely on cognition, [it] now includes both a component relating to mental functioning and one relating to individuals' functional skills in their environment." So while the definition has broadened a bit as a result of better clinical understanding, it's still a very specific and limited definition. But that hasn't stopped a lot of willfully ignorant fucksticks from throwing the term around casually not only to use it as an insult, but somehow they've also got this notion that it's an appropriate term to assign to someone with ANY kind of disability. Not only have I seen it done to others, I know this all too well from my own personal experience.

I have more than one disability. At the age of three, I was diagnosed as having bengin congenital myopathy (or benign congenital hypotonia). In a nutshell it's a rare condition characterized primarily by weakness of muscles or lack of Type 2 muscle fibers. It's unlike muscular dystrophy in that it doesn't get progressively worse over time, and actually in many cases improves with the onset of puberty (as it did in my case). But it's a permanent and lifelong condition. I also have attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity. And I have also struggled with depression. The cumulative effect of having these conditions is that each one excaberates the other, thus impairing my overall functioning in a way more severely than just one of these conditions would in isolation. This meant I had a myriad of symptoms that manifested themselves. On was my eyelids, which often had a tired, droopy appearance.

"Are you retarded?" was a question I got asked very frequently, usually from my peers, and not in the pejorative sense, but asked as serious inquiry, albeit with undertones of othering, reminding me that there was something visibly different about me. These were invariably the same ones who would subject me to harassment and discrimination.

But it wasn't just me. As a teen, I also knew two other kids with visible disabilities. One had a mild form of cerebal palsy, the other one had a condition I can't remember the name of, but part of his symptomology was protruding eyeballs and some speech difficulties. In the eyes of many other kids, were "retarded". Their indiscriminate use of the word was a lot like their indiscriminate use of the racial slur 'Paki', to describe any person of colour from south Asia or the middle east. And it's not just kids or people who are simply uneducated. I've heard all manner of people using the term in this way.

Sometimes I don't know which is worse...using a legitimate word like retarded in an ableist, derogatory way or using it in earnest without really knowing what the fuck it means in the first place. Either way, to those of you reading whom this applies, I would like to ask a favour...

Stop. Doing. That. Shit - Seriously.


  1. Did your mate have neurofibramtosis?

    (I don't know anything else which has protruding eyeballs, for now).

  2. Im with you on that, the words retarded and lame are thrown around american culture, which tends to export its culture, as a pejorative in a very liberally. I dont agree with it at all.


  3. Adelaide,

    I don't really know, but that could well be it. Unfortunately I've lost touch with this friend and so I'll probably never get the chance to ask him.

  4. Thank you for telling us about yourself, Niall. Would never have known. Retard is even described in dictionaries as offensive slang, and it needs to be eliminated from ordinary language... through persistance starting in the small classrooms to influencing common knowledge over the wide interwebs. Good on you for posting this.

  5. Dear Niall, thanks so much for this! It takes courage to write, but it is oh so good for the soul!
    Big Hug

  6. @Dupont...Thyroiditis, or Graves Disease specifically, is characterised by bulging eyeballs.

  7. Great it will let me leave a comment now!

    "Stop. Doing. That. Shit - Seriously."

    Right on...

  8. I was just at a provider meeting last week, and it was announced that the state of Maine has officially stricken the phrase "Mental Retardation" from its vocabulary on a governmental level. This means that those of us in the mental health field will be using "developmentally delayed" in it's place. Not the choicest phrase, but better than what we had.

    I'm getting my DSM-V next week...I heard a rumor that this version has also removed it...which means something pretty monumental:

    That Mental Retardation is no longer a diagnosis and will not appear on any new evaluations or psych reports!!