Gay and lesbian.
What do you think of when you see these phrases?
How do you feel when you hear or see these words?
How is this word different from the previous two? Why do many in today’s society think it’s fine to use the words retard or retarded, but not nigger or faggot?
As a mom to a delightful son with Down syndrome, it cuts me like a knife when I hear someone casually toss out the words “retard” or “retarded.” A word that was once used in medical/clinical terms to describe someone with intellectual impairment is now routinely used as a punchline in movies, stand-up comedy, and even by my peers.
If someone uses the r-word in my presence, I gently ask them not to do it again. Their response is most often something like, “Oh, but I didn’t mean that!” and (most of the time) I believe they are sincere. But the thing is…people don’t use the words retard or retarded in a positive way.
Retarded is never a compliment.
But is the issue really about being offensive? Utimately, it’s up to me to choose whether I’m going to be offended. I can choose who I associate with. I get to pick my friends. I make decisions about what movies or comedians I see. The real issue at stake isn’t hurt feelings.
Language is powerful.
Negative language that calls to mind a specific group of people can have devastating consequences. Every time that someone uses the words retard or retarded, they are devaluing all people with cognitive impairment. They are reinforcing the stereotype that people with intellectual disabilities are worth less than typical people. They are coopting what was once a neutral medical/clinical term and transforming it into an insult.
When a group of people is devalued, their opportunities are limited. They are more likely to be targeted by bullies…or worse.
African-Americans were once viewed as lesser humans, and were subsequently enslaved. After they were freed, it took another century for them to gain equal rights. Jews in Germany were targeted for extinction by their government. Slurs were a big part of Nazi propaganda – ordinary people like you and I allowed the Holocaust to occur because they believed that Jews were lesser humans.
More dangerous than direct slurs are those who claim to feel compassion for individuals with disabilities. Compassionate-sounding phrases like “burden to society,” “ease suffering,” and “better for the family” are used to justify institutionalization, abortion, and yes, even euthanasia.
A lesser known aspect of Nazi history is that not only Jews, but also children with disabilities were euthanized. Reasonable people willingly handed their children over to the government because they believed the message, repeated often, that it was the compassionate thing to do for their child.
But those days are gone, right?
Could something like that happen in our country today?
If you don’t believe it could, I challenge you to Google “mentally disabled woman murdered” and see what you find.
Pay attention to the news media for a little while. I set up a Google alert to feed me news stories related to Down syndrome and cerebral palsy (many of my Sun-Beams links are obtained in this manner). One thing I’ve noticed over the past several months is that even the positive, feel-good stories carry headlines such as these (emphasis mine):
Words such as “victim” and “sufferer” are problematic, even when used in an otherwise positive context, because they reinforce images of helplessness and inability to be independent or productive – the so-called “burden to society.”
Today, I encourage you to take a stand to not only end the r-word, but to confront and help to eliminate any and all language that devalues people.
Today’s post in an adaptation of the “Courageous Conversations” session that I facilitated on Monday at Georgia Highlands College.