It used to be socially acceptable and was a respected term in the medical establishment. But now there’s a move afoot on both sides of the border to eradicate the R-word from the English language.
“Retard,” used freely as an insult in schoolyards across North America, has been deemed derogatory to the intellectually disabled by the Special Olympics, which has been running a campaign called Spread the Word to End the Word in an effort to halt its use.
The campaign gained momentum with the release of Ben Stiller’s 2008 comedy “Tropic Thunder,” when a coalition of disability advocacy groups, including the Special Olympics and the Arc of the United States, objected to the film’s repeated use of “retard.”
In Canada the word has been frowned on by the disability advocacy community for decades, says Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Community Living (CACL), formerly the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded.
But it was a January column in the Ottawa Sun titled “A lobbyist by any other name…,” which denigrated government lobbyists as being retarded, that prompted CACL and People First of Canada to launch their own campaign.
“People were so deeply offended, the paper got so much negative feedback, that we stepped back and looked at it and decided we really are still seeing the use of this word in the media,” says Bach. “We decided it was important to raise this issue, to kind of challenge the daily use of the word that we see and hear.”
We think there’s just too much negative association with the word.
— Michael Bach
The Canadian campaign, planned to kick off officially in October, will be school-based and focused largely on youth, says Bach, the idea being to strike the word entirely from the English vernacular.
“Our objective with our campaign—and some people will react to this—but it’s basically to eradicate its use. We think there’s just too much negative association with the word. Its use as a derogatory term to denigrate someone’s behavior or someone’s action too closely cuts to the core really of people who have been labeled in this way for so long.”
The U.S. campaign is backed by the hit TV show “Glee” and its stars Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter. In a public service announcement after the show last week, Potter said, “It is not acceptable to call me a ‘retard’ or to call your friends ‘retarded’ when they do something foolish.”
Another famous advocate for doing away with “retard” is former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who has a 3-year-old son with Down syndrome. In a Facebook post, Palin criticized Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, for using the word together with an expletive during a meeting with liberal activists about healthcare reform in August 2009.
In the ensuing uproar from disability activists, Emmanuel later apologized, as did singer Lady Gaga and “Miami Heat” star LeBron James for their use of the word, even though their remarks—as with Emanuel’s—were not in any way directed at people with intellectual disabilities.
Free speech advocate Christopher Fairman, a law professor at Ohio State University, believes the fuss over the word has been blown out of proportion.
“When people say ‘retarded,’ they normally just mean ‘stupid,’” he told the National Post.
“I can’t imagine a situation where someone would look at someone with Down syndrome and call them a retard. That kind of callousness and cruelty does exist, but it’s never going to be controlled by the sort of campaigns that we’re talking about.”
Even if the word gets buried for good, the few who would denigrate the intellectually disabled “are going to find another insult to use,” he said.
However, in a Washington Post op-ed, Timothy Shriver, chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, said the word “represents one of the most stubborn and persistent stigmas in history. Millions of people have a prejudice they often are not even aware of. It is much bigger than a word, but words matter. And the word “retard,” whatever its history, reflects a massive problem.”
The irony is that the term “mentally retarded” was introduced by the medical establishment in the early 20th century to replace other words that were seen to carry pejorative connotations, such as “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile.”
Its use has been all but dropped by the medical community, which now prefers the term intellectual or developmental disabilities.
CACL’s Bach stresses that his organization is not aiming to become the “language police,” but says the R-word has to go because it “continues to justify the exclusion and seclusion of a really de-valued group in our society.”“We’d like to send the message that for us the use of this word has got to be challenged by all levels of our society, from schools, media, government, and professional associations,” he says.
“The N-word, the nigger word, for instance, has no place in the English language. Similarly the R-word has no place in the English language.”