Smile Politely

Down with the R-word

(Ed. note: We posted this under Editors, but it’s just Caleb and Joel that wrote it. Carry on. And leave Trig out of this.)

As a society, we have made a habit out of hiding people with developmental disabilities. We have institutionalized them, we have sterilized them, we have shown them that they are not important to the fabric of our society.  Our collective choice to recognize those with developmental disabilities as human beings with unique and genuine value is relatively recent — and arguably incomplete. 

Incomplete because, on a rhetorical level, it’s still commonly accepted to marginalize those with developmental disabilities by using the word “retard” or “retarded” as a way of referring to people or to the actions of people with whom we disagree, don’t like or generally hold in low esteem.

When these words are used to connote stupidity or worthlessness, they ultimately confirm the notion that people with developmental disabilities are less valuable than people who are not disabled. When we do this, we are creating rhetorical space between “us” and “them” — even when these words aren’t used to directly insult a person with a developmental disability, they create a situation wherein the developmentally disabled exist as homogeneous trope for stupidity.  By rhetorically marginalizing a specific group of people, we lay the ground work for their second-class citizenship.  This is something we’ve seen time and time again throughout the course of human history: the language that accompanies oppression serves as a de facto justification for its presence in our culture.

The greatest example of this is the “N-Word,” which, in our culture, carries a great deal of power for the mere fact that it suggests the rhetorical separation that whites used to justify their sense of superiority.  The fact that this word is anathema in our modern cultural discourse tells us that we, as a country, have chosen not to value the oppression of African Americans — at least on a rhetorical level.  And I would argue that this is significant, that even if we as a country still choose to be racist, our choice to not openly embrace racism is a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, this implies that we are generally ambivalent towards people with developmental disabilities. This shouldn’t be too surprising.  Truth be told, people with developmental disabilities are one of the most isolated and marginalized segments of our population.

This isn’t an issue of political correctness; it’s an issue of recognition. The recent conversation that has come up surrounding this word has less to do with political correctness and more to do with the ramifications this word has on real people.  People with developmental disabilities are the most oppressed, abused and criminally perpetrated groups of people in our country. The language we use plays a role in this disproportionate state of affairs. 

When you use the word “retard” to refer to something you don’t like, you are using the negative cultural cache that continues to surround people with developmental disabilities, just like those who continue to use the word “nigger” rely upon that word’s disgusting and all-too-real history. — CALEB CURTISS


As you may have noticed, the “r-word” is gaining cultural currency over the last few years. From the Black Eyed Peas’ hit “Let’s Get Retarded” (neé “Let’s Get it Started”), Ben Stiller’s character making the artistic choice to avoid going full “full retard” in Tropic Thunder, Zach Galifinaikis’ groundbreaking second-syllable emphasis (reTARD) in The Hangover, and heck, even C-U’s own Buzz got in on the act awhile ago, there’s the makings of a real trend here.

And now there’s some silly debate where Rahm Emanuel used the r-word to describe some of his fellow D-words, and Rush Limbaugh called him a retard for doing it, and explained that it’s ok to call retards retards because they’re retards, you know? Which is ok — because it’s satire, right? And now Sarah Palin is involved, as our official national r-word arbiter. So it goes.

But with every cultural action, there’s an (equal and?) opposite reaction, and that’s where the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign comes in (visit to check it out). March 3 is their Day of Awareness. Hey, they even got Dr. Cox from Scrubs to speak out, so you know it’s a big deal:

Full disclosure: my little sister — who just turned 30 — has cerebral palsy, and she uses an electric wheelchair to get around and a touch talker to communicate. She used to do the tennis ball throw in Special Olympics. She lives with three other women in a specially-equipped house at a place called Opportunities Unlimited in northwest Iowa. She gets along pretty well, all things considered.

So, yeah, I’ll admit that I take it personally when someone says “retarded” when they mean stupid or wrong-headed or uncool. Because she’s a person, too, and it irks me when someone uses a word derogatorially that could be used to describe her. Most of us were fortunate enough to have been born without undue mental and physical challenges, and it’s pretty thoughtless to toss around words that deride those who weren’t.

There are so many other excellent insults available in the English language, that it’s unnecessary to use the r-word. In fact, someone compiled 20 that aren’t even vulgar. So, the next time you need a go-to insult, don’t use retard or retarded. Try asinine, inane or vacuous. You might give others the impression that you have a decent-sized vocabulary, and that you think about what you’re going to say before you speak. Or, if you don’t want to take that risk — call them ignorant fuckers instead. — JOEL GILLESPIE

Related Articles