As the sister of a child who is severely disabled, interacting with children with both physical and intellectual disabilities is an ordinary practice for me, where it may be very few and far between for others. With my brother being diagnosed with cerebral palsy when I was three years old, the special needs community has become an integral part of my life. Over the years, I have met children who have intelligence beyond their years but are physically limited, children that function well physically but have difficulty focusing or concentrating, and many others as well. Despite the broad range of disabilities that exist, every person with a disability is strong, courageous, and should be celebrated for embracing their differences. However, the r slur (r*tard) plagues playgrounds, workplaces, and everyday conversations, undermining this beautiful community.
As defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary, the word retard as a verb is defined as “to delay or impede the development or progress of: to slow up especially by preventing or hindering advance or accomplishment.” Based on the predicate form of the word, “mental retardation” became a neurological term in the 1960s employed by the American Association on Mental Retardation and the American Psychiatric Association. But, as pointed out by the dictionary as well, the word quickly became informally used as an insult to mean, “a foolish or stupid person.” This transformation of the word and the way it is most commonly used today shows a disregard for people with special needs.
Even when the word isn’t being aimed at the community, it is still harmful because it associates being disabled with being “stupid,” a connection that is both inhumane and just inaccurate. It also ignores that living with a disability is neither a choice nor option, but an unfortunate, unavoidable circumstance out of anyone’s control or jurisdiction.
When the insult is thrown at the disabled community, the impact can be even more devastating. I have watched special needs children break down after being called that word, feeling targeted, unappreciated, and condemned by its use. That feeling is not one that anyone should have to go through. To read the experiences and powerful words of children who have received those insults click here (https://www.aruma.com.au/about-us/blog/lets-end-the-r-word/).
If you do use the word “r*etard,” remember that the language you use is something you can so easily change to avoid harming and marginalizing an entire group of people. It is not at all challenging to take the initiative to stop using this slur and remove it from your vocabulary. Though it is quite easy to use a word, keep in mind that the ripple effect of that word extends much larger than the few seconds it may have taken you to say it.