Wednesday, March 4, 2015

So, what do you say when someone uses the word "retard"?

"My name is Inigo Montoya, you used the word 'retard,' prepare to die!'" said no one ever. Still, many parents of kids with intellectual disability have strong reactions when people toss that word around, part of a deep desire to defend our children's honor.

Today is the seventh annual day of awareness for Spread The Word To End The Word, a campaign started by the Special Olympics. Why? The r-word has become a slur. When it's used casually in conversation as a synonym for stupid, loser, pathetic, weird or non-functional ("The new website design is so retarded!"), it perpetuates perceptions that people with intellectual disability (once medically described as "mentally retarded") are stupid/pathetic/losers/weirdos with lesser abilities.

This isn't a matter of freedom of speech, unless you're the type to believe racial epithets are OK. This isn't about being overly sensitive, either, given that the word demeans an entire population of people. Many doctors, hospitals and schools have quit using "mental retardation" as a diagnosis since it has become pejorative. Heck, the Supreme Court ditched the term last year.

Of course, this isn't just about a word; significantly reducing its usage won't automatically transform people's attitudes toward people with disability. But asking people to reconsider the word and what it signifies is a way to spark conversation about how we view people with intellectual disability, and rack up more respect for them along the way.

So there's that. And then there's reality of how to deal when someone you know drops an r-bomb, a habit that dies hard; a lot of us grew up using that word. You don't want to seem preachy. Nobody wants to come off as Mr. or Ms. Word Warrior.

I've found that it helps to first acknowledge the person didn't intend to be offensive (as is usually the case), and then give an explanation if someone doesn't understand why the word is so hurtful. Once, I was walking home from the train station with a neighbor who mentioned how "retarded" something was. I said, "I totally know you didn't mean anything by it, but I find that word offensive," and she immediately got it and apologized and we moved on.

Sometimes, it's not possible to say something on the spot. I was out for lunch with a group of friends the other week, and as we chatted away one of them said, "That's retarded." I wasn't going to interrupt our gossipfest plus I thought she might be embarrassed if I said something, no matter how nicely. So that night, I emailed:

Hi. So, I wanted to share something with you, I hope you don't mind. I think you won't because you are one of the more caring and wonderful people of this world. At lunch, you used the phrase "That's retarded." I didn't bring it up then because we were all talking a mile a minute, but it's a word that's become offensive to parents of kids with special needs, because of its associations.... I KNOW of course you didn't mean anything by it! I used to use it too. 

She wrote back, "It's a word that I usually never use for good reason, and it flew out of my mouth.... I am so glad you said something." Usually, people get it, though some—including smart and otherwise open-minded people I know—staunchly defend it as a vital descriptive phrase, even as they note they'd never call a person with cognitive impairment "retarded." For them, there's karma.

I'm similarly straight up if a stranger says the word. At work is a whole other thing, though. A few years ago, I was at a new freelance gig and one of the people who'd hired me—again, someone intelligent and cool—regularly said "That's retarded!" It didn't seem appropriate to say anything until I knew her better (and vice versa) but in the end, a coworker who knew I cared spoke up.

Some naysayers insist this is a futile cause; come on, they say, aren't there more important stands to take? The reality is, parents of kids with disabilities are constantly trying—day in and day out—to get our kids the inclusion and equality they deserve. This is just one more thing we do help pave the way for our kids, who travel down the proverbial road of life bearing heavy stereotype baggage.

You never know where a discussion will lead. Yesterday, a writer I adore posted a Facebook update that started with her kid describing a character in a book as "retarded." I noted that I find the word offensive. She said she knew my take and "vehemently disagreed." One of her friends chimed in: "I strongly feel retarded should be reclaimed. I've never used it to describe the developmentally disabled in my life. But some people are just f-ing retarded, and there's no better word. Also, no one's using it anyway, and I hate to see a good word lie fallow."

So I said, "If either of you had a child with intellectual disability, you might feel differently. This isn't about name-calling, it's about perpetuating the idea of people with intellectual disability as being stupid/losers/weird when the word is used as a synonym for these descriptions. Consider this: Hey, that's such a bone-headed move, you're such an AVIVA."

The woman made a comment about more "tact" and "civility" and having conversations without "bullying." I responded that I was trying to make a point—and that it wasn't exactly tactful to talk about letting a "good word lie fallow" when I'd just said I had an issue with said word. And then, she noted that our kids had a light "so pure and lovely that has nothing to do with the cheap facility of IQ points, and cannot be extinguished." And I couldn't have agreed more.

Please, use another word. My son, kids and adults like him, the people who love them and Inigo Montoya would really appreciate it.

More on this:

Would you call my child a retard?

20 reasons to respect my child with special needs

Do you get why this word hurts so much?

If you ask people not to use the word retard


  1. Yes and yes! I also have a problem with "spaz" as in, "She's such a spaz!" or "don't spaz out!" As if people who are truly spastic have any control over it.

    1. My ex brother-in-law used that word to describe my son one Christmas and it felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

    2. Whoa. How thoughtless. Max has spasticity. I never thought about the word "spaz," either, before I had him. He has really opened my mind in so many ways.

    3. I have tourettes, as a symptom of severe OCD. I twitch, and occasionally utter words uncontrollably. Trust me when I tell you that the word "spazz" is fine, as a pejorative. (Same goes for "crazy"). Sanitizing language won't help people like me.

      Disability is just over $900 a month, for a "spazz" like me. I can have a sense of humor about a term, but I can't subsist comfortably on $900 a month. If you want to take up a cause on my behalf, help to reform social assistance for the disabled. Then I'll appreciate your efforts! Political Correctness is more harmful to people like me, than anything. Euphemisms are unhealthy.

  2. When I hear the word I ask people to stop saying it.

  3. Some people use "autistic" as an insult. It's mainly directed towards Minecraft players and, as an autistic Minecraft player, I take offense to it. These people probably have little or no understanding of autism other than stereotypes. Some people use it when someone else is hating. This confuses me because I don't think autism is linked to intentional verbal malice. Hey, I may be an autistic Minecraft player, but that doesn't give you the right to stereotype Minecraft players or autistic people!!!

  4. Most of the people I know don't use it, and most of the ones that do aren't going to stop because I ask them to. So I've chosen to focus my energy on the younger people in my life, the ones who didn't grow up with it being okay. And it's worked: my cousin grew up knowing there were only two words I'd get on him for (the other is "fag"/"faggot"), and so learned to think about why those two words were so offensive to me. Now 18 (God, I feel old!), he rarely uses either of those words, and admits to having second thoughts when he does. Our conversations have made him think about who he might accidentally be hurting when he uses "those" words. (Note, this teqnique works best on kids that are not yours, as part of its power comes from your "no" word(s) being unique; it really drives home the point when a kid calls something "f-ing retarded" and it's ONLY the second word you state a problem with.)

    1. HA! The word is definitely big among teens—they use it as a hashtag on Twitter, in fact. Good for you for getting your cousin thinking about this.

  5. There was a beautiful video of the Colbert Report when Tim Shriver was talking about this very subject and he said "I aim to be a teacher, not a policeman" I am not the be-all, end all of what should be said or not, nor am I superior to others. I am a believer in that it's not a huge burden to put on our neighbors to think for a second before using such a powerful word, and in that change of thinking, this might change some actions and make our world a more empathic place.

    1. I am that believer, too. Love this. And the video is great, I just watched it. Here's the link for all to see:

    2. You won't create empathy by trying to sanitize language. That's silly, particularly given the "euphemism treadmill". Look it up.

      Sanitizing language is a bad idea, strategically. If someone lacks empathy and wants to bully, they can use whatever new term you've created as a pejorative.

      If you want to help people with disabilities, actually DO something for them.. Help them acquire more social assistance! Get them access to better community facilities! Fight for laws that prevent exploitative labor programs! Then you might actually help someone, instead of inventing monosyllabic euphemisms for people who continue to face systemic oppression.

  6. I am not fond of the word
    I have heard it applied to Addie and other students at her school
    I have also heard it applied to Addie's older brother and he attends an Ivy
    It is a slur like any other--if it is wiped out you can be sure another will take its place
    As for limiting another person's first amendment rights, I have way too much else to do

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Rachael, maybe show him the r-word site—, which has a list of states that have erased the word from their legislation (to help him understand it's a defunct term). Or even some videos that have been made. This one was mine:

  8. When I taught and I overheard a student, or even some random kid in the hallway use it, I always simply said, "I don't like that word." It usually prompted an apology, or at least an embarrassed silence. One day, when I heard it twice in my own classroom, I used it as a teachable moment, and the kids responded very well. I say it to adults, as well, no matter the situation.

  9. I don't use that word and haven't had to take a stand about it in my personal world. No one is using it and I haven't had to "educate" or police about racial slurs, either. I would say something if I heard someone use the word. "Retarded" has always been a slur as far as I'm concerned. I don't even know what "that's so retarded" is supposed to mean. I never used it as a regular word, so I'm not losing a word in my vocabulary by not using it.

    But, what about the word crazy? I haven't been able to stop using this one. And, the word "idiot" and "idiotic". I do try to use all those words to describe ideas and not people, but I have been known to say that politicians are crazy. I'm bringing up the other words in an effort to understand the person who wants to keep the word "retarded", out of some belief that it enriches the enriches the english language? I don't see that concern for retarded, but do wonder for other words.

    1. Yes, "crazy" is offensive to people with mental illness, I also try not to use it. "Idiot" also used to be used in a diagnostic context, like "mental retardation," and evolved to be an insult. I think reconsidering the word "retarded" is on so many people's radars thx to the efforts of the Special Olympics, which has a lot of influence and reach.

    2. I have a mental illness. The word "crazy" doesn't offend me, nor should it. Euphemisms offend me, because they denote shame, implicitly. You have the wrong approach in dealing with disabilities. Political Correctness does literally nothing to alleviate prejudice, bullying, systemic inequalities or poverty. It's a platform for armchair intellectuals to orate from, so that they can feel morally exceptional about themselves without helping a single person.

      Look up the term "euphemism treadmill" to understand the futility of sanitizing language to combat prejudice and bullying.

      You shouldn't teach autistic children to be offended by the word "retard". If someone calls them "a retard" because, technically, they have mental retardation, their response should be, "Yeah... I am. What's your point?" Instead, when you teach kids to resent pejoratives, you instill shame regarding their affliction. Same goes for mental illness.

      If my feelings were hurt every time I heard someone use the term "crazy", I'd never leave the house. You can't go through life, being so weak. Not when you have a disability. Political Correctness causes problems for vulnerable people, without offering a single solution.

  10. Love this. Hadnt heard about that campaign before. Check out mine if you have the time :)

  11. Spread the Word to End the Word! I remember when I was first called one, I was 8 and in gym class. I didn't know what it meant but cried anyway. I will always educate people on this word, my least favorite one until there is no need to do so. This post is deja vu for me as I first found your blog 3 years ago b/c of a similar post. That led me to this site where I am now a daily visitor. So thank you.

    1. No, thank YOU for all that you share here and the insights you give. I'm sorry you experienced that as a kid.

  12. My first born son had severe CP. Was trach, G-tube and wheelchair dependant. He never spoke, never walked, ate, or rode a bike. He did however, laugh, smile, kiss, hug, and shared his light on this Earth for 10.5 years before he passed away in my arms last April.
    I fought the use of this word from the age of 12 because I worked with people with disabilities from that age. Sometimes, I used civility and tact to explain the hurt it caused. However, I am human and a tiger mother, so sometimes, I did express my hate of that word in a rude way.
    The worst interaction was when another mother of a special kiddo used that phrase. I wrote her a private message to her to explain how hurtful that word is. Her response? Its her first amendment right to use it. She didn't care if it hurt me, my son or hers. And then the worst "Its not like they can even UNDERSTAND it!! Chill the F#$& out!!"
    I was blown away! Needless to say, I unfriended her and blocked her on social media.
    I will never stop fighting to end this word! My son understood that word and I saw how it hurt him.
    There are so many other words in the English language!

    1. I am so sorry for your loss—he sounds like a wonderful boy. You're helping other kids like him as you continue to speak out. I've had interactions with parents of kids with special needs who insist that "mental retardation" or "mentally retarded" is the correct diagnosis for their children, and that they are going to call them that. It's mind-boggling.

  13. As a mother of a daughter with intellectual disability, this word hurts a lot. I remember how the R word used to be flung around the school ground when we were kids- none with bad intentions, just something kids used to say. This word, of course, is no longer used in my home but I hear friends, friend's friends, friends of family members still using it like it's not a big deal. Kudos to you for emailing your friend, next time I hear that word, I should do the same. Thanks for sharing.

  14. I say it loud and clear .."We do not use the R word in our home " . It's not allowed in our home along with all other derogatory words . I heard it the other day in a thrift shop ...From the owners mouth ...I simply walked out and will never go back. If I hear a child say it, I explain to them why they shouldn't say the "r" word. It's unacceptable in my surroundings.

  15. This article is one-sided. If you want to persuade people who actually use the term "retarded" as a pejorative, you have to address arguments against political correctness. You haven't.

    The main argument against your position, is that terms for afflictions like "retard" or "crazy" are on a "euphemism treadmill". Every new term that is created, becomes the new pejorative. You can't possibly cleans the language, because it adapts too rapidly to accommodate bullying. As a result, your strategy to ban "The R Word" simply won't accomplish anything.

    Second, creating euphemisms perpetuates feelings of shame and embarrassment for disabled people, like myself. It's extremely patronizing to be called "differently-abled". Euphemisms are meant to obscure emotional connotation. They're a form of denial. How is that healthy? When you teach someone with autism to be offended by the word "retard", you CREATE a vulnerability that they have to live with, every time they leave the house. If they're at the mall, or on the bus and someone calls something "retarded", they feel alienated, or even hated. If I subscribed to PC "wisdom", I'd be miserable because I hear the word "crazy" as a pejorative several times, each day.

    I don't mind the word Crazy. If someone teases me because I'm behaving abnormally, and they say, "Man, are you crazy?!" I tell them, "Yeah. I have severe OCD". That usually ends the conversation, with an apology... They always feel much worse than I do.

    The lesson: Your children will function if they accept that they have an affliction. They can't afford to be weakened further by hyper-sensitivity.

    You have to at least address these issues, if you want to build a persuasive argument.

  16. "Mentally retarded" was introduced by the medical community to replace the words that had become slurs that were used to describe those with cognitive disabilities, words like "imbecile" and "idiot". Don't you see? Because people with disabilities ARE actually different in some ways, then other people MUST develop words to explain their behaviors, deficiencies, and sometimes their need for assistance by others. Imagine being in a situation in which a loved one with mental retardation/needs/disabilities needs assistance, and you must communicate to another (police, doctor, paramedic) that this person needs special care and in some way different attention. You will be FORCED to use a WORD. You can't just make little grunting, 'eh' sounds, and hope they'll get it. And once all of you word taboo specialists have decided on that new word or phrase--'special needs', 'intellectually disabled', 'cognitively impaired'--whatever, that word or phrase will eventually be used to insult others, or to describe something they find 'stupid.' It is natural evolution of language.
    Please stop this misguided campaign against a WORD. Are you so foolish as to think this campaign will make people believe that mentally retarded people AREN'T actually mentally retarded? What is the point? You have latched onto a silly cause and decided to get all in an uproar about something so trivial. Now the herd mentality has set in and everyone thinks its "oh so terrible" to say retard. It isn't!
    However, it IS actually terrible to belittle, make fun of, exclude in unfair ways the mentally disabled. Totally. 100%. I would never do that and people should have some social sanctions against being hurtful to others with disabilities. But it hurts absolutely no one when I say that something is 'retarded.' Its a misguided creation of a word taboo. As far as I can tell, the campaign is being championed by nitpickers and oppressive word nazis trying get other easily influenced goofs to join a dumb campaign because their feelings get hurt when someone says a specific word. Talk about a 'first world problem.' Soccer moms and nitwits with nothing better to do then piss themselves off and start a useless campaign. In 20 years it will be the campaign to end the "special needs" word. Come on, use your energy to focus on the REAL ISSUE, not a specific word. Its misguided and confusing, in the end it won't help anyone with disabilities. How about the campaign to end discrimination against the disabled? That strikes at the real issue.
    And did you honestly write:
    it perpetuates perceptions that people with intellectual disability (once medically described as "mentally retarded") are stupid/pathetic/losers/weirdos with lesser abilities?

    Yes! that is the DEFINITION of a disability.

    Disability--n. A disadvantage or deficiency, especially a physical or mental impairment that interferes with or prevents normal achievement in a particular area.

    I won't stop saying retard. I'll see you in 20 years when you are campaigning against the next taboo word for this condition.
    How ridiculous is the following?:
    I'm bald. I get sad when someone says "bald eagle" or "bald tires." It signals to me that they don't care about my feelings about having no hair on my head. I'm just as good as everyone else, with a beautiful wife. But people won't quit saying 'bald' around me. "bald faced lie" is one of the worst, what like all bald people are liars?!
    That's it. I'm starting a campaign. No ONE can use the B-word around me any more!
    Are you bald? Is your Dad or Grandpa? Or Mom? I bet she tears up every time she hears the B-word. Come join my campaign at and pledge to never say the "B-word" again!


  17. I describe myself as "F'in retarded" and I refuse to apologize for it. If someone complains about the word "retarded" I tell them to go look up the term in the dictionary- "It means at a slower pace, behind others". I'm brain damaged, and I take 2 different kinds of med's to kinda stay up with other people. My question to the rest of you jerks is- why are you exploiting children for your own agenda by a single word?

  18. I absolutely hate the word "retarded" being used as an insult. People with mental handicaps are not dumb. They just struggle more with certain things than most people. If only people would stop using hurtful words they don't even understand!


Thanks for sharing!