Unfortunately, insensitivity is commonplace without exposure to individuals with intellectual disabilities. When I ask my mom whether she knew my oldest sister, Selina, had Down’s Syndrome before she was born, she always responds, “Thank god I didn’t.” Even she admits to not having challenged stigmas until she raised her first child. I, on the other hand, have grown up with a disabled older sister, making me very aware of others’ use of vocabulary pertaining to individuals like Selina. The use of the word “retarded” has changed quite a bit in the last century, from a technical to a derogatory term, and I have a problem with how it’s used today.
It was originally accepted as the way of referring to people with mental disabilities, but has since come to be loaded with a very different connotation. My whole life, I’ve heard it used as an insult. Whether used self-deprecatingly (“I can’t believe I said that. I sound so retarded!”) or a fun jape between friends (“Dude, you looked like a retard!”), for some reason the use of this word has yet to be curbed. Unlike problematic terms referring to other minorities, such as “faggot,” I don’t see much backlash to the use of “retard” or “retarded” at the University of Michigan.
Usually, if I hear someone use a slur against the LGBTQ community, which is already rare, they are called out pretty quickly. Despite my friends and students at the University being relatively forward with social justice, for some reason, slurs against intellectually disabled individuals aren’t kept in check quite as much. Could it be because many like my sister don’t have the option of attending college, and therefore aren’t worth changing campus culture for?
But then again, it’s not as if I do a lot for the cause, either. Just last night I was hanging out with some friends and repeatedly heard the word used, but said nothing. Why do I value the comfort and peace of a social situation over the dignity and respect of individuals with intellectual disabilities? I have sometimes in the past called people out for using the word, and I always got one of three responses.
The first option is that the person recognizes their mistake almost immediately and apologizes, and I can tell that they sincerely regret using it. The second response is that the person who I called out remembers that I have an intellectually disabled sibling, and I can tell in their eyes how uncomfortable they are. They’ll apologize, but I can tell that it is a hurried and awkward apology, done for my sake rather than out of a desire to use less offensive vocabulary. The third response I’ve gotten is something along the lines of “I don’t actually mean retarded ‘retarded!’ That’s not even the word they use for disabled people. Stop being so sensitive.”
While it is true “an individual with an intellectual disability” has replaced “mentally retarded individual,” using this slur will always draw upon connotations of people like my sister. And every time I hear it, I will think back to elementary school, when other students actually would directly bully the kids who had legitimate developmental disabilities.
It’s not as if hearing the word makes me never want to hang out with those who use it. Part of my frustration is just knowing how jealous Selina is of the fact that I get to attend college and be surrounded by so many friends. It kills me that my friends — the types of people who she would love to also be friends with — use a word so negatively charged with such a casual lack of self-awareness. My sister is extremely sensitive to the respect and feelings of others. I can only hope those who use the word “retarded” might choose to be a bit more like her.
Liam Wiesenberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.