Thursday, October 4, 2012

Let's talk about people who cling to the word "retard"

Let's talk about the people on Twitter who constantly fling the word "retard" around.

Let's talk about major sites like Zazzle that sell shirts that say "Retards do it gooder."

Let's talk about commenters who regularly leave remarks on the video I made about the word like "I spy a retard!" and "What a retard."

Let's talk about the commenters who saw that video on and felt compelled to say things like "Please don't take away the word retarded, it's a great word!"

Let's assume that a lot of these people are ignorant, cruel, heartless or all of the above. Some of them may never get it. Some of them don't want to get it. Sadly, some very smart people are also choosing not to get it. As in, The New York Times. Read on.


Let's talk about the fact that in 2010 Congress banned the use of the words "retard" and "retardation" in federal health, education and labor laws because "retard" has become a pejorative word that essentially means "stupid" or "loser." It demeans people with disabilities—and makes the world think less of them. The preferred term is "intellectual disability."

Let's talk about the fact that per plans for the fifth version of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), to be published by The American Psychiatric Association in 2013, the term "mental retardation" will be replaced by "Intellectual Development Disorder."

Let's talk about the fact that The Special Olympics have launched a full-out campaign against the r-word, Spread The Word To End The Word.

Let's talk about how much the word offends and hurts people with disabilities, as well those of us who love people with disabilities.


Let's talk about doctors who use "mental retardation" as a reason to not give kids life-saving operations, like Amelia Rivera, who needed a kidney transplant and whose doctor originally told her mother "I do not recommend Amelia for a transplant because she is mentally retarded."

Let's talk about smart comedians like Margaret Cho who, when asked about having a baby at an advanced maternal age, responded "I don't necessarily want to have a retard."

Let's talk about pundits (albeit loathsome ones) like Ann Coulter, who recently tweeted "Been busy, but is Obama STILL talking about that video? I had no idea how crucial the retarded vote is in this election." She was referring to a video the President made for the National Forum on Disability Issues.

Let's talk about the ongoing use of the word in The New York Times. In a recent piece by reporter Danny Hakim about a man filing a lawsuit for the abuse of his son, Hakim referred to the son as "severely retarded," as tracked by Louise Kinross. Wording was later changed, she pointed out, to "severe mental disability." Louise edits and writes the award-winning BLOOM blog and magazine for Canada's Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, and is mom to Ben, who has intellectual disability.

She emailed Hakim, as she details in a post, and also shared the emails with me. He noted that "mental retardation" is a diagnosed condition; said that at the New York Times "we've actually used the term with some frequency"; and explained that a copyeditor had most likely made the wording change. NYT copyeditors evidently missed this September 29th article, in which a reporter referred to a man as "severely mentally retarded." After another round of emails, Hakim agreed he would "carefully consider" her point going forward.

Louise also contacted the office of the New York Times' Public Editor, and heard this from Joseph Burgess: "If the proposed change in language ends up being enacted, let me know and I will bring it to the attention of the standards editor. That would be a more appropriate time for the public editor's office to push for a revision in language."

Let's not talk about the labyrinthine ways of The New York Times. But let's say this: If smart, educated, otherwise conscientious people—the kind who shape millions' of people's thoughts every day, the kind whose business it is to care about words—don't care all that deeply, then we have a very, very, very long way to go. "Why does the New York Times hold on to using what in common speech has become a demeaning slur?" Louise noted to me. "In particular, why do they cling to such a word when describing one of the most marginalized groups in society?"


Let's talk about how this isn't just about a word, before people start crying censorship and that weeding out a word isn't going to make a damn difference in the way the world treats kids like Max or Ben. It's about furthering a conversation on how we view people with disability—and treat them as equals in society.

Let's talk about how kids like Max and Ben need every advantage they can get in this world.

Let's talk about the real r-word: respect.

Let's talk about this, and let's keep right on raising our voices.


  1. Brilliant Ellen!

    Thank you for sharing your powerful voice!!!

  2. AMEN!

    I think the word is more offensive when used by people who are supposed to be intelligent. You can forgive ignorance, it is harder to forgive stupidity.

  3. C,mon don,t get your knickers all in a twist about this one word. You do seem particularly concerned with this one word, but why do you expect everyone else to become as passionate about it as you are, maybe there are other words out there that get to me, I don,t use them but also don,t expect anyone else to become as sensitive about at as me. So earth to Ellen, please come back to orbit.

    1. Perhaps we should start using the N word too?

    2. do you know the dictionary definition of "retarded"? it means
      slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress. i have a brother who has born with mental retardation...i dont find the words offensive. '

      i find this whole politically correct thing retarded

    3. The point is... it is being used these days as a pejorative... It means someone considers a person less than. If its being used as an insult... then guess what... it changes the social definition (definitions change all the time. Like a certain pejorative for homosexuals... a very long history of changing definition) It's not about political correctness. Its about common decency.

  4. Interesting...
    I've NEVER liked when people use "the r word" as an insult... particularly when they put strong emphasis on the first syllable "You REtard!"
    However, I was not aware that using the term "mentally retarded" in a matter-of-fact way and as part of an honest description of an individual was incorrect.
    I was taught that "mentally retarded" means what it says... learning slower.
    So- along those same lines, I prefer the term "intellectual development disorder" over the term "intellectually disabled".

  5. Hi Audrey -- I don't believe in the "word police" but words matter. They shape perceptions. Newspapers have style guides with "rules" for a reason -- to ensure their reporting is impartial and unbiased. They need to follow them. Other groups representing women, gays and racialized people have voiced their preferences regarding descriptors and they are heard. We are no different.

  6. You know, I absolutely, completely agree that it is disgusting when people use the word retard in a pejorative or casual sense. I have called so many people out on this - it's wrong and offense and horrible.

    However, I do see a difference in using "mental retardation" in an appropriate, non-pejorative context. As a university student, my professors often speak about adults with mental retardation (or MR), and that is currently the official DSM term (although soon to be changed, I see!). I personally prefer the term intellectual disabilities, but I don't see how the word retardation is necessarily a bad thing in those appropriate, medical contexts - I've never heard someone using it pejoratively there...

  7. Great Post Ellen!

  8. Hi Jillian -- Thanks for your message. Ellen gave an example of how children and adults with intellectual disability have been denied transplants on the basis of "mental retardation" -- because brainiac professionals make the assumption that they must have a poorer quality of life, so aren't as deserving as typical folk.

    Study after study also shows that people with disabilities rate their quality of life way higher than physicians. To say that the same stereotypes that exist in our culture are somehow immune from the medical system is naive.

    You may want to read more about these studies here:

    Patient- and family-centred care is all about partnering with families to provide the care that meets their needs -- not bowing down to clinical jargon that even the APA has stated is out of date.

    Perhaps the best people to ask whether the term "retarded" has been used in a pejorative way in a medical setting would be the families themselves.

  9. Good post, good food for thought, as always.

    I had responded to an earlier post that you wrote about this subject back in June, along the same lines as Jillian (above). Our family uses the phrase "mentally retarded" respectfully, and your post made me defensive. Sometimes when I mention that my sister-in-law has Down Syndrome, folks don't know what that is, so to clarify I would usually say "She's mentally retarded". I would NEVER call anyone a "retard". HATE that word.

    However, I've thought about this discussion a lot since your last post, especially regarding the pain reflected in your words and that of many commenters, all of whom seemed to be parents of special-needs kids. I'm not, and although my mother-in-law (who's 88) defends the use of "mentally retarded", I now realize that she did not grow up in an era when "retard" was flung around all the time as an insult, as it was when we were kids. The word "retarded" doesn't carry the same weight for her at all.

    I want to defer to you moms of differently-abled kids and the general use of the R-Word, so here's my 2 cents: I think these are two different discussions: using the word RETARD as an insult or for "comedy", and the clinical use of the phrase "mentally retarded". Both should be phased out, but they come from such different motivations.

  10. Hi Louise! Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that the people who decide what is offense/what isn't should be the families themselves. To me, though, the problem isn't that the words "mental retardation" are being used by medical professionals (like Amelia Rivera's doctor). The problem is that some of those medical professionals (like Amelia Rivera's doctor) are failing to educate themselves on the vast manifestations of MR and are making incorrect, baseless assumptions about what MR means for people who have it. I don't think that replacing the word "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability" (a term I personally prefer) will prevent doctors like Amelia Rivera's from being discriminatory and inhumane. Regardless, it's just my opinion, and I appreciate your input. :) Your son looks like such a cutie, by the way!

    1. Being retarded is NOT the only reason why amelia was being denied a transplant. She has wolf hirschhorn syndrome which causes multiple defects throughout her body. She has many severe health problems - like having died twice on the operating table - along with multiple medications that could cause her to reject an organ.

      I lost a very close friend who was mentally intelligent but had a bad heart because she kept getting bumped from the top of the transplant list. She got bumped because people like amelia's mom would throw a fit that their little turnip was more deserving of the heart than someone who actually had a job and children of their own.

      Kids like amelia should never receive an organ. The cost of the transplant surgery is anywhere from $300,000 to $1million - which means those funds are wasted when they couldve helped hundred of people instead of one. The organ that is wasted could have gone to someone who could actually benefit society. You would never give an kidney to someone with Stage IV lymphoma or someone who was 90 because it doesn't make sense to do so. It doesn't make sense to waste one on a turnip who only draws a check for their parents.

    2. Anon why not?! It was the ONLY reason Amelia was denied a necessary transplant. Your attitude to this matter is disgusting and appalling. A society is measured by how well they treat the most vulnerable people NOT the other way around.

      And, you are completely heartless. Hello we are NOT living in the 19th century anymore. What's more you are a burden to society. Open your mind and realise your attitude stinks.

      This is 2013, so get with it. STOP judging people based on their worth its NOT okay anymore. When you have a child with disabilities you will think differently. I hope so anyway. Of course you're anonymous as you are a coward.

      Is that what you really want, Amelia to have DIED unnecessarily? Somehow I cant quite believe that. And, I dont even want to. As a human I'm appalled by your attitude regarding children like Amelia.

      Amelia is NOT a "turnip"- what the fuck are you talking about? We CANNOT deny children with cognitive disabilities a transplant or say they are MR. The moment we do that, we turn from a caring person into a monster. A heartless monster.

      Should we only give children who have been to school transplants? Is that what you want?! And, I hope you are NOT a doctor.

  11. Hi Jillian -- I agree, there is no "perfect" word that will free people with cognitive disabilities from the stereotypes (and I would say hatred) that many hold for them -- often at an unconscious level.

    To be honest, I hate all the words. I don't like the word disability and I don't like intellectual disability because I feel my son has unconventional intelligence.

    But I feel it's a matter of choosing the lesser of the evils. The words mentally retarded have such powerful negative connotations because of the way "retarded" has become used in common speech. It's a way of stripping someone of their humanity. When the NY Times goes out of its way in first reference to say "Joe Blow is severely retarded" I have to question what the intention of the reporter is.

    Would you expect to read "Joe Blow is severely cancered" or "Joe Blow is severely bipolared?" How about "Joe Blow is severely obese" or "Joe Blow is only moderately intelligent."

    No, we don't describe someone's cancer as defining them -- and we shouldn't describe retardation in that way either. And why is the degree of someone's disability public knowledge any more than my IQ is?

    In some ways the sting of the word disability, I think, has been removed because of the human rights movement by disability activists. So I don't see it as stigmatizing as the word "retarded."

    However, I feel all of these words fall short of coming anywhere near describing the package of qualities that is a person.

    I would love to know what you're studying at university and to send you a copy of our magazine. If you send me your snail mail address I can put you on the list:

    Thanks for writing back! Louise

  12. Last year on the front page of the NYT they wrote a story about Fragile X and used the term retardation syndrome. I emailed them asking what that was and why they took it upon themselves to create a new term when Intellectual Disability would have been just fine. They never responded but they did change it on their website. Very frustrating to see such close mindedness at the NYT.

  13. Great post! I think it is a hateful word. I was teaching this week and one of my doctoral students used it - to refer to themselves - but still. I didn't like it and have been meaning to share with the person why - maybe I will just direct them here.

    Here's why I don't like it - it's incorrect. Whose to say what the standard is? Whose to say what normal is. AND - let's face it - even though I realize there is such a thing as delay in development and of course differing levels of intelligence - the r word IS a slur. It's meant to be an insult - just like the N word and other words that are used to hurt and lesson a person and make them "other" and less than human.

    Thanks for writing such a great post.

  14. Words DO change meaning over the years. You have to wonder why people don't get that?

  15. Wonderful post!! Thank you!

  16. I agree with people who have said that eliminating a word from our collective lexicon will not be the answer to changing society's perception of people who are differently abled (unfortunately). Recently I heard my adolescent son use the word retarded to descibe his friend who had done something really stupid (I won't elaborate, but it was inappropriate). I talked to him about using the word, and his response surprised me. He said, "Mom, people who are developmentally disabled should never be called retarded. That's totally different. People who are losers and act stupid are retarded. They're not the same thing". I did of course explain that this was not how most people saw the situation. It did make me pause though; my son didn't associate the word with people who were actually developmentally disabled. He saw it as a derogatory word, sure, but only to describe people who make bad choices or act inappropriately. I suppose this illustrates exactly how word connotations change over time. At any rate, I asked him not to use it to describe anyone and he agreed.

  17. I know this post is a few weeks old, so I'm a little late to the party here, but I felt the need to share something positive with you. I'm 19 and I recently started college. Growing up, I always knew "retard" was a "bad word". I don't remember learning that it was, or hearing it used or anything, it was just something I knew, it was how I was raised. When I started to hit the age (sometime in middle school) where people started using bad language, that word started popping up from time to time. I knew it was bad, but hearing it didn't bother me any more than any other "bad" words did. But even when I started to curse, that was one that never entered my vocabulary. I heard people, even some of my closest friends use it. I had very little experience with anyone with special needs at that point, but for some reason, the word "retard" was just one that I never felt comfortable using.
    Since then, a lot had changed. I never started using the word, but in high school I started helping with the special education students at school, and really made the connection of how much that word could hurt. Especially in the last couple of years, as I became quite close to a few of the students I was fortunate enough to work with, hearing that word bothered me. And once it started to bother me, boy, did I start to hear it everywhere! I'm sure it wasn't that it was being used that much more, but once you're tuned in to that word, you pick it up on your radar much more.
    My mother and sister at home both use it. Occasionally I'll hear a friend use it (although most of my friends don't really use any words that could be offensive). I hear people all over use it.
    When I came to college, I was nervous that it would be around me much more. Kudos to you for having the guts to stand up to people who use it. I don't quite have that confidence yet, so I was especially worried about hearing it, and being to scared to do anything about it. But it's not nearly as bad as I expected. Sure, I'll hear people using it around campus sometimes. But for the most part, the people I spent the most time with don't use it. One of my friends does sometimes, but I don't see her as often because of our schedules, and the opportunity for it to be used doesn't arise too often in our conversations.
    The 3 girls I spend the most time with don't use it. One did, and I was seriously considering trying to bring it up to her, but after the first few times, one of the other girls said something about it, and the rest of us chimed in, about how even if you didn't mean anything bad by it, that because of it's original meaning, it wasn't a good word to use. And you know what, we got through to her and she hasn't used it since!
    So, my point is- attitudes are changing. Sure, there will always be the people who insist on using it, even after they're educated on it. But the INTELLIGENT, REASONABLE people, once educated on it, understand it and try to change their behavior. And that is a step in the right direction. :)

  18. A rose by any other name is a rose.

    An intellectually-disabled person is by any other name is intellectually-disabled.

    A mentally-retarded person is by any other name mentally-retarded.

    An oversensitive, obsessive twit by any other name remains an oversensitive, obsessive twit.

    1. Do you think calling President Obama a "retard" is an acceptable practice? I'm an 32 year old male with Asperger's Syndrome/High Functioning Autism, do you think I'm a "retard"?

  19. Hold up, I'm confused. I was with you for the first half of the article but now you're saying that we can't use "mentally retarded" to describe somebody who is actually mentally retarded? When did that happen? What's the problem?

    Retarded means slowed [by some sort of agent], so why is that usage suddenly offensive? It may no longer be in vogue as a medical term of art, but that doesn't mean that it can't be used in its non-derogatory, conventional register.

    Please think strategically about this. Your aim, I believe, is to end the derogatory use of this word, and I support you in this campaign. If you overreach for no good reason however, people will dismiss you as shrill and your arguments will not reach nearly as many people.

  20. I want to thank you greatly for this post. I am a 32 year old adult male with Asperger's Syndrome/High Functioning Autism. I was not even diagnosed until I was a 19 year old adult. I'm kind of embarrassed and ashamed to admit that growing up in the late 1980's and early 1990's, the r-word was a common insult thrown around by my classmates, peers and siblings, and that I admit I used the term quite regularly. In fact, I remember as a child playing a video game and when I was consistently losing at the game I would register my name as the r-word. When my grandmother, who was a special education teacher, saw this, she gave me a talk about what the term meant and why she wished I would choose another name for my video game character. Then it wasn't until years later that I was official diagnosed as having a mental health disability that impacted, among other things, my ability to succeed in college and in the work force. I will forever regret words I used so casually as a child, but I definitely will say since then I've discovered a real sense of the damage that kind of thing can do. By the time I was a kid the n-word was considered unacceptable, and I even remember being taught that the fa-word was rooted in violence against the GLBTQQI community, but we were never really instructed about what the r-word meant, and the harm it did persons with mental health and developmental disabilities, of which I was unknowingly already a member. As a person who as not diagnosed with a mental health disorder until I was an adult, I have ever since deeply had an appreciation for the disabled community, especially those with hidden disabilities. I hope that by the end of my lifetime the r-word will have the same impact as words now inciting racism, sexism and homophobia do, and when we hear those terms, we'll speak out against ignorance, intolerance and discrimination.

  21. Louise -
    I'm sorry that the burden for advocacy feels like it's one the ones most acutely affected. As much as the kids with unconventional intelligence (I like that phrase!) need more advantages and fewer external road blocks - I think the parents need it too. I think the parents need more allies to step up and do some advocacy because it just flat-out takes more time to parent a kid who is in any way different. I want to say that what you wrote (except below) really made me think in a different way -- no, I wouldn't refer to people with other limitations that way and I'm going to start using your example when I talk to people (to break through their "well that's what they ARE" hangups) because I think it has an immediate and clear impact - thanks for that.

    "Would you expect to read "Joe Blow is severely cancered" or "Joe Blow is severely bipolared?" How about "Joe Blow is severely obese" or "Joe Blow is only moderately intelligent."

    No, we don't describe someone's cancer as defining them -- and we shouldn't describe retardation in that way either. And why is the degree of someone's disability public knowledge any more than my IQ is?"

  22. : to slow up especially by preventing or hindering advance or accomplishment : impede

    : to delay academic progress by failure to promote
    intransitive verb
    : to undergo retardation
    — re·tard·er noun
    The chemical will retard the spread of fire.
    The problems have retarded the progress of the program.

    It doesn't look to me like the meaning of the word has changed for quite some time. It is a valid word, and that's not going to change.

    For all the claims of intelligence I see in this thread...I see very little practical application of critical thinking.

    Do you really believe that saying "intellectually disabled" is more flattering? I have to question how strong your grasp on "the meaning of words" really is.

    Is "stupid" not a derogatory term as well that is used to describe someone, and/or their actions? I see that word being used multiple times in the comments on this page, but I don't see anyone taking up the torch for that. Would calling your child stupid be more acceptable than calling him mentally retarded? I would hope not.

    You can't pick and choose. If you have a problem with one (arguably)derogatory descriptor being applied to someone, the you must have a problem with all derogatory descriptors.

    It's interesting to me that Kris above mentions her son using the word retard, and then goes on to describe the action that her son's friend took as being "stupid". How is that any better?

    I challenge all of you to really sit down and think about what you're trying to argue here. You're arguing over a legitimate word that has real meaning that by default IS NOT derogatory. It's not like the words "faggot", or "nigger". Trying to lump it in with those words is pure silliness, and the sign of an undeveloped mind.

    See, I just called you stupid in a politically correct way. Did that make it hurt less? I doubt it did.

  23. “Even a pearl started as a speck of dirt.”
    I am guilty of using this word in the past, even though I have worked with the Special Olympics while in high school... but when you know better, you do better. To be honest I never made a straight line correlation between the word retard (or any variation thereof) because I felt as long as I wasn't using it in a hurtful manor towards an individual with actual or perceived intellectual disability it was okay to use as it has a legitimate definition. But as I stated before when you know better, you do better… I was raised to be respectful, because in turn I would want the same as a black woman. I vow today, that I will no longer use word in any context until the societal stigma is lifted.

  24. I don't hear "retard" too often, I work at a college and the students seem to be very aware of it and are even working to make others aware of the connotations of that and many other words.

    I personally have been trying to phase it out, but every once in awhile I find myself saying, "Man I'm such a retard" — that's my most common usage, but I'm trying. I replace it with dumb-ass and loser because that's ultimately what I mean. It's always been something I don't even think about. I've been using it as a descriptor since I was a kid on the playground — I remember a lot of people in the 80s used the word "fag" to refer to their friends & yes, others in a derogatory manner. I rarely hear that one any more.

    It's also interesting that college kids (and others in the community) actually like the word "queer" as a descriptor with the LGBT group. I actually cringe a little when I hear them use it & I find that queer doesn't come out of my mouth well because we've been so conditioned to it being a no-no. Just like "nigger", you don't hear that much now either — and when you do it's used in a specific manner, not an all-encompassing way.

    It IS possible for a word to go away from the everyday vernacular, but as you said–if the people who shape millions' of people's thoughts don't care, well then what about all those people being shaped?

    It doesn't matter what the actual definition of a word is, it's how the word it used. "Gay" means merry & lively yet how many people do you know say "I'm feeling gay today" and mean it that way. Just like "retard", most people don't say the word with the literal meaning in mind. There always have been & will always be such words in society, it just changes each generation what people are sensitive to.

  25. This page is absolutely amazing. I recently just wrote a speech persuading everyone to end the R word. I have some close connections with people with disabilities and I agree that the word is extremely hurtful and NEEDS to be stopped. Thank you for this amazing blog.


Thanks for sharing!

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