A Mother's View of a Word That Wounds: Retard
By Theresa Howard, advertising reporter for USA TODAY
You are such a retard.
You've heard the expression. Sometimes it's preceded by an expletive, as in "you're such a f--ing retard." Either way, with or without the curse word, it's a harsh statement. But one, it seems, that's become increasingly acceptable. So much so that in one recent week I kept track of how many times I heard it and who said it. I heard it daily - whether it was a colleague, a neighbor talking to his dog, an actor from a hit TV show during an interview with me, a top level advertising executive, young men playfully swapping insults or Tony Soprano to his son after a botched suicide attempt.
Last year, the r-word was in the title of a Two and a Half Men episode It's a word that, unlike "pimp" or the n-word, is always derogatory. For reasons that I can't understand, pimp has become synonymous with style. The n-word, for a handful of African-Americans, is a term of endearment - until someone outside the circle uses it. Then it becomes derogatory.
But no matter how or by whom the r-word is used, it's always in a negative context. You don't hear, "What a great idea, that's so retarded." You don't hear, "Awesome catch - what a retard move."
While some are advocating that the n-word be banished from America's lexicon, who is the voice for the 7.5 million Americans with intellectual disabilities who truly are mentally retarded? Who is defending their dignity while everyday folks - educated adults at that - take a term that clinically applies to the disabled and use it as an insult?
What's my fascination with the r-word? I take it very personally. And I'm not a person who is easily offended. I am, however, the mother of a 6-month-old daughter who was born with Down Syndrome. Lydia Catherine is sweet. She's got a warm smile and very knowing blue eyes. She's got a subtle little dimple and a tiny tuft of strawberry blonde hair that swirls into one single swoop into the air.
When she looks at me, I feel like she can see all the fears, concerns, doubts and questions that swim around in my heart and my mind every day. Will she be smart enough to know when she hears people say the word "retard" that they are talking about her?
This is not new territory for me. I grew up the sibling of a Down syndrome sister. Catherine Anne was 41 when she passed away four years ago. She was born at a time when "mongolian idiot" was the operative term, and doctors suggested to my parents to leave her behind and she'd be taken care of. It really meant she would have been institutionalized. They didn't listen. Catherine lived with my parents until the day she died.
For as long as I can remember, I corrected people when they said the r-word. I flashed dirty looks to people who stared. I told parents to tell their child that it's not polite. Ever gregarious, Catherine would smile at strangers, many of whom would be so uncomfortable that they didn't know what to do. Even after Catherine passed away, I continued to correct people for a few years. Then I got tired. I no longer felt it was my battle.
Until Dec. 10, when Lydia was born. My journey has begun all over again, this time with me as the mother and my older daughter, Sofia, as the sibling. If I was protective of my sister, I am almost scared of how protective I will be for Lydia and her own sister. But as she grows up in a time when "retard" is a socially acceptable slur, professional organizations are trying to change the clinical term. Last November, the American Association on Mental Retardation changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The Special Olympics is advocating that "retarded" be dropped from the vernacular.
Fixing the terminology is only a start. The bigger issue is acceptance of people with disabilities.
Do your part. Don't stare. Say hello. Be inclusive. And when you want to insult someone's intelligence, remember to use a different word.