The Intelligentsia and the R-Word

What comes to mind when you hear the word “retarded”?

I’m going to guess that it strikes many readers of this blog as rude, if not offensive, because so many people within our culture use the word as a joke or a slur. It originated as a medical diagnosis for people with low IQ’s (“mental retardation”), but over the course of a few decades, it came to connote something else.

As Louise Kinross pointed out on her blog last week, the New York Times continues to insist upon using the word to describe people with intellectual disabilities. Louise writes:

I was surprised to see this “sell” to a story on the front page of The New York Times today: “A New York State assemblyman who is a prominent advocate for people with disabilities plans to sue the organization that cares for his retarded son.”

I turned inside to page 18 and read this lead: “Ricky Weisenberg, 54, is severely retarded, cannot speak or even cry, and has cerebral palsy. But his parents know their way around the system: his father, Harvey Weisenberg, is a state assemblyman and the Legislature’s most prominent advocate for people with disabilities.”

She references the NY Times style manual and discovers:

This [style manual] counsels respect for group sensibilities and preferences that have made themselves heard in the last two or three decades — concerns, for example, of women, minorities and those with disabilities. The manual favors constructions that keep words neutral…”

I think the preference of people with developmental or intellectual or mental disabilities and their families was made clear when over 300,000 people signed a pledge “to eliminate the demeaning use of the R-word” in the Spread the word to end the word campaign by Special Olympics.

Furthermore, if staff were looking for neutral language to describe Ricky Weisenberg, this would have sufficed: Ricky Weisenberg, 54, has cerebral palsy. He cannot speak or even cry. 

Louise received a note from Danny Hakim, the reporter for this story, which includes this defense:

 Mental retardation is a diagnosed condition – you can look it up in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.

Louise goes on to explain that the APA has proposed a name change, and of course if the NY Times were taking their own style manual seriously, they wouldn’t need to wait for the APA to change the name, but rather would refer to the “group sensibilities” of people with disabilities and their families. As Louise points out, plenty of other words convey the truth of life with an intellectual disability.

Which leads me to wonder whether the reason this language is still so pervasive in every corner of our society has to do with plain old prejudice. I am inclined to believe that there is a persistent, unacknowledged (and to some degree unintentional) bias in intellectual circles, which includes our mass media, against people with intellectual disabilities. I see it again and again, certainly in the technical assumptions of many within the medical field (see for instance Louise’s post about the paper calling for infanticide of babies with disabilities in the Journal of Medical Ethics last spring) but also in more popular ways–whether a humor page in the New Yorker that uses the word retarded as a joke, or TIME magazine’s “celebutard” joke a few years back, or the present usage from the NY Times that violates their own policy.

Our national media has gone to great lengths to overcome institutional bias in language used towards various racial and ethnic groups as well as people on the GLBT spectrum. It wouldn’t take much work, as far as language is concerned, to treat individuals with disabilities with the respect they deserve. But it might take a change of heart.

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).

Comments

  1. I know this is a lousy solution, but I sort of wish “retarded” could be divorced from its original meaning. I catch myself using it to mean “when someone does something really stupid”, even though I don’t mean it as a slur. I certainly would prefer that all proper and professional writing including journalism move towards using “intellectual disabilities.” In the meantime, I am slowly trying to correct my back vocabulary habit.

  2. For what it’s worth, I always think that the “r-word” just means “r%@&*d” (without the -ed ending) which sounds, to my ear, more offensive than the NY Times usage. I needed to be educated on this! Thanks.

  3. “I am inclined to believe that there is a persistent, unacknowledged (and to some degree unintentional) bias…against people with intellectual disabilities.”

    For better or worse, intellectual disability seem to be carry a special kind of significance generally. It seems fair to say that mental disability is in some ways a lot more significant than physical disability. If the perceived bias merely reflects this kind of significance, then that bias isn’t obviously wrongful. (Perhaps all this is interestingly related to the way in which permanently losing your mind is a lot different from permanently losing your legs. The former seems to touch who you are as a person in a way that the latter doesn’t.)

  4. I think also, Amy Julia, that a word like “DISability” invites confusion too.

    • Amy Julia Becker says:

      Addi, sorry for the slow response but I totally agree. I really dislike the word disability, and yet it is different from the word retard/retarded because I don’t think it is used as a joke or a slur. It’s an unfortunate choice to try to convey the challenges a group of people face. But, yes, I wish we could come up with something better.

  5. We lost the ability to use the word “gay” in the sense of “happy”, and now “retard” in the sense of “hinder or impede” as with a mechanical device (dictionary.com). Those who have misused the words over the years, giving them a niche meaning or making them pejorative, have done a disservice to the language. I think the only thing we can do now is minimize the damage by ceasing to use the word “retarded” in these psycholoogical and educational settings.
    It’s a shame that words are used to hurt people, especially when we consider that our Savior is the Word himself.
    Tim

  6. What’s wrong with claiming the word as it is intended? You might have an uphill battle with insurance companies and the APA as mental retardation is a long-standing Axis II diagnosis.

  7. People with intellectual impairments – and their parents – endure constant insult and anguish, from the ostracism, ridicule, disparagement and contempt which ignorant and callous people inflict on them or their children. Thank you for challenging this shaming and abuse.
    Your critique of NY Times and other media usage is accurate and insightful. But far too kind. Danny Hakim’s sullen, stubborn response to a request that he reexamine his vocabulary is far more offensive than his initial ignorant but probably innocent usage of an obsolete clinical term. As Jesus noted, one who claims to know the truth is liable to deeper moral accountability than one who indulges in no such pretense.

    I don’t see prejudice against intellectual impairment as arising from the conceits of the intelligentsia. I agree that there is invalid, elitist privileging and over-valuing of the intellect in most (perhaps all) cultures, and that this privileging of the mind indirectly contributes to society’s devaluing of people with intellectual, cognitive and emotional impairments. But I believe a far more primal, central and powerful emotional process drives prejudice against people with mental and cognitive impairments: fear, and vicarious pain and shame. (There is also frustration and resentment at the difficulties which accomodation of cognitive impairment can entails. That frustration and resentment is not inherently abusive or prejudicial. In fact it’s a normal response to any difficult situation. But it can turn cruel if not contained within healthy boundaries.)

    On the plus side, we are in a time when all bigotry – including bigotry embedded in habitual language – is under corrective scrutiny. We’re all far more prejudiced than we like to admit. It’s always painful and disorienting to have our prejudices called out. The defensiveness and backlash which ensues can be painful and ugly to watch, even though it’s inevitable.

    One response I find truly deplorable is “anti-PC” instigation – where manipulative political propagandists ridicule and villify efforts to end bigotry. They do this as a calculated strategy to consolidate and exploit those who are so deeply ensnared in prejudice that they would rather descend into fascism and pugnacious bigotry than examine the moral and humanitarian implications of their language and attitudes.

  8. I will say this– this summer, I had to take a course for my State of CT teaching certification. All CT State educators must now take a course in Special Education, and one of the focal points of the course was the issue of language, and that we not only do we need to change the words we use to describe people who have disabilities, but we need to change the dominant cultural mindset that those with differences “hold back” other students. or do something to “take away” from learners within the classroom. I was pleased to see this emphasis in education! Changing the language used in the media, in education, in casual conversations… is a powerful start to changing mindsets!

  9. I will say this– this summer, I had to take a course for my State of CT teaching certification. All CT State educators must now take a course in Special Education, and one of the focal points of the course was the issue of language, and that we not only do we need to change the words we use to describe people who have disabilities, but we need to change the dominant cultural mindset that those with differences “hold back” other students. or do something to “take away” from learners within the classroom. I was pleased to see this emphasis in education! Changing the language used in the media, in education, in casual conversations… is a powerful start to changing mindsets!

    • Amy Julia Becker says:

      That’s very encouraging and should make a difference, in time, in cultural attitudes and perceptions for sure. Thank you!


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