Warning: The blog post below contains an expectedly unpopular opinion. Feel free to comment.
Hello readers! It has been exactly one week since my Alternative School Break ended, and I must say it was an extremely illuminating experience. I learned a lot over that week, not only about individuals with mental disabilities, but about myself and my values. Before I go into my experiences during the trip, I think it’s of importance that I blog about a problem I had during our pre-service ASB event: “End the ‘R-Word’ Day”.
On Wednesday, March 7, Lafayette’s Best Buddies program co-sponsored “End the ‘R-Word’ Day” with the Landis Center and Kaleidoscope. The event’s description on the Lafayette College Calendar of Events reads as follows:
“Recently, there has been an increase in the use of the word, ‘retard(ed).’ It is commonly used as a derogatory term to mean ‘stupid.’ This event is an opportunity for people to voice their disappointment with the inappropriate use of this term, in hopes to educate people to better understand what they are really saying, in hopes that they will use it less.”
Commendable, no? I certainly think so. Using the word “retarded” in a derogatory way is offensive to many people, in the same manner as the word “gay”.
However, I take issue with one aspect of the event for two reasons: methodology and realism.
In terms of methodology, the speakers in the event made what I believe to be a mistake that detracted from the overall presentation.
I’m speaking of the complete refusal to use the word “retarded”. Event leader Evan Gooberman (who I consider to be a good acquaintance and a man that I have the utmost respect for) was the primary offender in this respect. Throughout his time at the podium, Evan repeatedly substituted “r-word” in place of “retarded,” a choice that granted even more power to the derogatory usage of the term. The word “retarded,” when used correctly, is not offensive–it is a diagnosis of a condition that the health section of The New York Times describes as “below-average general intellectual function, and a lack of the skills necessary for daily living.” Why would a description of an individual’s state of being be considered offensive? By using “r-word” instead of “retarded,” Evan was making the implication that the word itself, as a diagnosis, is offensive and should not be used, an idea that I completely disagree with.
I’ve had this discussion with many people since that day, and one consistent rebuttal is that the word itself is directly correlated to the derogatory term, and instead of “retarded,” “mentally challenged” should be used in its place. To which I have two responses:
1) The terms “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” used to be official terms describing individuals with varying levels of mental retardation. The official designations were changed in the 1960s to “severe,” “moderate,” and “mild” forms of “mental retardation” (respectively). Today, those terms have entered the popular lexicon as terms used to describe foolish people, and we face the same shift with the word “retarded.” Can you imagine a 1960s-era Lafayette protest centered around an “End the ‘I-Word’ Day”? Seems preposterous.
What this proves is that the derogatory use of the word “retard(ed)” will not go away, no matter what we change the official diagnosis to. This is a point backed up by my next rebuttal:
2) People are already starting to use “mentally challenged” in a derogatory way. Namely, the middle schoolers and freshmen in high school. Having a 14-year-old brother means I’m exposed to a lot of stupid things that I’m sure my friends and I did back then, but one thing I found interesting was how they teased each other. Let me give you a situation:
I’m at Walmart with my brother Jacob and his friends shopping for Super Bowl snacks. They’re goofing off as usual, displaying antics that I now find annoying and juvenile but certainly would have found hilarious 5 years ago. For example, Jacob’s friend Matt will at random times let loose a high-pitched shriek, invoking images of pterodactyls. It’s annoying as all hell, but they find it hilarious. After a fit of laughter following a shriek (inside the Walmart, mind you), Jacob’s other friend Mike wiped a tear from his eye and said:
“Dude, (teehee)…you’re freaking mentally challenged.”
The point of this story being that changing the “politically correct” term DOES NOT remove these connotations, no matter how many times you change them! “Special,” “retarded,” “mentally challenged”…the political correctness is an uphill battle. What’s next? Actually, I think I know. One of my very good friends, who attends Villanova, has a friend who is trying to push the term “differently-abled” to describe people with disabilities.
It seems like great satire, but I swear to the Lord above that she’s for real.
To summarize, trying to completely “end the R-Word” is a lesson in futility. While you may do so much as to change the official diagnosis to such politically correct terms as “mentally challenged”, it will never be enough to stop people from using it in a derogatory fashion, if only because of what the terms actually mean. We cannot change the fact that these individuals are of subaverage intellectual or physical abilities, and we can’t fully control the middle schooler’s insistence on using these terms in a derogatory fashion.
Don’t misunderstand my intentions in this blog post. I fully respect and encourage the initial intent behind the event, but that particular aspect of “end the R-Word Day” only reinforced the aforementioned ideas for me. I support the idea that we as a community should stop using the word “retarded” in a derogatory fashion. But being offended by the diagnostic term itself is going a step too far…changing the medical diagnosis itself in an attempt to be more politically correct is a pointless endeavor that will, like the Hydra, be replaced by other terms that will be used in a hurtful and ignorant way.
UPDATE: To further attempt to elucidate my point and to avoid any misreadings/misunderstandings, I would like to repeat the following:
I believe that using the word “retarded” in a derogatory fashion is hurtful and offensive. However, I believe the problem lies in the context in which people use the word, NOT the word itself. That was the main focus of “End the R-Word Day”–respecting those individuals enough to not use the word retarded in that way, and the event was extraordinary in that respect. This is in no way intended to detract from anything the event accomplished and/or stood for, and I believe that that is clear when you read the article at face value.
I merely disagree with the notion that the word “retarded” is the source of the problem. To address the problem with derogatory usage of “retarded,” we should confront the people. Not the word.
I know that this opinion will be met with some opposition, and I invite anybody who wants to provide an alternative opinion to comment below. Don’t blow up my Facebook this time.
I hope this blog post has at least encouraged you to keep an open and always-questioning mind about these topics, and I wish everyone the best. Excelsior.