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.

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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).


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