The Power of a Word

Have you ever used the word “retarded” to describe a child or an adult that you know? Have you ever heard someone else use it as slang in conversation?

When I was teaching in the 80s, special education was thought to be teaching the “retards.” It was common language that wasn’t meant as derogatory, it was just considered a statement of fact.

However, there has been a movement surrounding this word over the years. If the meaning of the word was to describe individuals with sub-average intelligence, then why change the word at all? What’s the big deal in using the “R” word? It’s the subtle, yet demeaning power that accompanies it degrading individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families.

It’s compelling to me that in 2012 the “R” word is still spoken in a derogatory manner. I’ve heard the term used by students in schools and by adults in theaters. I’ve read about it being said in poor taste from celebrities and most recently via the tweet from Ann Coulter. Coulter tweeted her insulting thoughts on President Obama’s base with no regard for persons with disabilities and their families saying:

“Been busy but is Obama STILL talking about that video? I had no idea how crucial the retarded vote is in this election.”

Haven’t we grown a bit more thoughtful and compassionate since the 80s? Individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families have enough challenges to overcome in life without being haunted by ghosts of stereotypes past. Coulter can still enjoy making waves, but why not do it in a compassionate manner? I challenge her to retweet her statement in language that is respectful.

The popular group, The Black Eyed Peas, understood this issue. Their song, “Let’s get it started in here” originally was entitled “Let’s get retarded in here.” While they were selling out concerts to audiences around the world singing the anthem, one member of the band noticed something. In the front row of their concerts sat individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, listening to the music that contained the “R” word in a negative fashion. He brought this to the band’s attention and very soon they altered their song lyric.

We have come far, but we still have much to accomplish.

The use of the “R” word runs the gamut from a common descriptive adjective to a derogatory slur. It can be used unintentionally or intentionally. I urge you to see and hear this word for its true meaning, acknowledge the negative power that it conveys and to respectfully speak up when it’s used. Our voices together are more powerful than this word.

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6 Responses to The Power of a Word

  1. Cyn says:

    Thank you for your post Maureen. I am appalled at the derogatory use of the “r” word in common speech lately and how its being used by public figures. Anne Coulter is doing it again :

    “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.”

    “Obama: “Stage 3 Romneysia” – because cancer references are HILARIOUS. If he’s “the smartest guy in the room” it must be one retarded room.”

    I think when we see or hear folks saying words that make us uncomfortable that we need to voice our displeasure and like you point out eloquently….”our voices together are more powerful then this word.”

  2. kategladstone says:

    Changing Ann Coulter’s words (or getting her to change them) doesn’t add respect to a statement that wast respectful — and that was not intended to be. See for yourself that a “respectful” rewrite is no gentler than the original:

    “I had no idea how crucial the vote of people with an intellectual disability is in this election … Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the person with an intellectual disability … If he’s the smartest guy in the room, it must be a room full of people with intellectual disabilities.”

    The alleged respectfulness isn’t respectful; the alleged improvement doesn’t improve.
    If it did, I would notice: I was called “retarded” at least once, most days of my life, into adulthood.

  3. Raja says:

    I really think bainnng a word does no good if you don’t also change the public attitude that make that word an insult in the first place. If that kind of prejudice didn’t exist, then “retard” would be a neutral term.

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