Help us continue to provide community support and services.

Disability Action Center NW

The Word 'Retard': Stop Using It

by Ellen Seidman (Subscribe to Ellen Seidman’s posts)
Mar 3rd 2011 10:28AM

Let’s say you have a child with disabilities who has cognitive delays, and when people jokingly uses the word “retard” to call someone stupid, it bothers you.

Let’s say that in honor of Spread The Word To End The Word Day, which was this week, you decide to do a little project: For a few days you will message people on Twitter who use the word “retard” and let them know the r-word is derogatory to people with disabilities.

You don’t actually expect the word to disappear anytime soon or that people will instantly chop it out of their vocabularies. But maybe, just maybe, you can raise a little awareness. You will set up alerts for tweets that contain “retard.”

And you will find that there are so many mentions of the word — thousands a day — this could be your full-time job. People in the U.S., England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Kuwait say the word. Men, women, teens (lots and lots of teens), people of all races and all spelling abilities.

You will not fault people for their use of the r-word, because the term has become slang. They don’t mean to malign people with disabilities. Heck, you used to call annoying situations “retarded” before you understood.

You have no problem with the words “stupid” or “dumb” or worse. Sure, call your friends names if you’d like, it’s your conversation. But maybe you don’t have to toss around the word “retard.” Or say even worse things:

When you’re sending a message limited to 140 characters, you’d expect that some people won’t get what’s so wrong. You can’t get into explanations of how equating people doing stupid or blockheaded stuff (“I’m a retard for forgetting my wallet!”) with people who have intellectual disabilities insults them, and how it perpetuates stereotypes. You’d expect most people to ignore you, which they do.

You’d expect some to be defensive, as the very act of tweeting at them is confrontational, even though you try to keep your tweets even-handed: Hi. Mom of kids with disabilities here. The word “retard” is demeaning. But still, you will be surprised by how people dig in their heels:

Someone whose bio reads “My words make a difference in this world” will curse you out:

Some guy will use a phrase that you have never heard before:

And when you go on Urban Dictionary, look up “photo wrecker” and read the description — “A retarded or disabled person” — you will sob. Because you’re furious and you’re dejected.

And because for the first time in your life, you fear how people may one day treat your son when you are not around to protect him. You will feel sorry you started this project. But you will not be able to stop. Those alerts for “retard” will keep popping up. Forty six alerts, 373 alerts, 1,452 w
hen you wake up one morning.

And you will keep tweeting: Hi. Mom of kid with disabilities here. Would u help end the use of the word “retard”? It hurts. Some people will use rationale …

… and some will laugh at you.

But some will inspire you to keep going:

And you will get a few apologies and acknowledgments, and hope your message sticks.

And then, you will read yet another tweet: Don’t worry, I won’t hold your incredible stupidity against you. Still love you bro. #retard. You will tweet him and point out that the word is demeaning to people with disabilities. And he will tweet:

And you will not give up:

He won’t give up either:

And finally, you will say:

And then:

And you will feel a little bit of hope. The day you are done, you will get an email from one Lars who tells you that last week his organization launched The Social Challenge.

Through that site, you can anonymously “challenge” Twitter r-word users. But then, you will feel proud that you did this on your own. For all the times you felt sick to your stomach to see a string of smiling faces jokingly calling people “retard,” for all the nasty responses you got and for all the non-responses, you will know that even if you’ve changed a few people’s minds, your efforts will have been worth it.

But you will not be able to stop looking.

Ellen Seidman is a freelance editor and writer who blogs about raising kids with special needs atLove That Max, where this post originally appeared.