Susan's Blog

Saturday, March 25, 2006

In Defense of Retardation

The other night, when I read at the Barnes and Noble in New York City, the young events manager was explaining to me about the noise generated by the air conditioning; he said it was, “retarded.” As always, when someone otherwise kind uses this term in this manner, I winced (inside) and cast about for an appropriate response. I said, laughing, “You know, to me that is not a bad thing.”

He paused for a moment, looked appropriately embarrassed, and mumbled something sheepishly, maybe, “Oh, right, sorry” I don’t know, and the awkwardness passed. My mission had been accomplished: to point out in a light-handed fashion, the misuse of the word “retarded.”

Being retarded has some really bad PR. It is like one of the worst things you can be, apparently, at least to many in the general public. Kids insult each other with it, second only perhaps to saying “gay” disparagingly.

Having a child who tests in the retarded range, I have been feeling for years that I have to step in and get people to stop misusing the word “retarded.” I have written letters to ignorant, offensive talk show hosts. I have said to store clerks, “You seem like a nice person. Don’t use that word.” I have said to friends, even, “Let’s not use that word when what we mean is, ‘unskilled,’ or ‘socially awkward.’ Not as satisfying, sure, but that’s not my problem.

Then I heard that there were organizations who had for years worked to improve the lives of the “cognitively disabled” and who were changing their names from using the term “retarded,” to something perhaps gentler, nobler, PC-er?

That seems wrong to me. It’s just that “retarded” is so often misused. The burden should be on the abuser, not the victims.

But frankly, there are so many of us who just wish that our children were not “developmentally delayed,” and so that any other name would smell just as sour. I remember going to an event to raise awareness for a certain approach to autism, and one of the speakers talked about how their child was, at first, diagnosed as “mentally retarded!” Gasp. But now, thanks to this approach, he was “high functioning.” (Never mind that, in the video of the child Before, I observed that he actually played quite well, and at the time wished that Nat could even play as well as that!)

So I thought of Natty, with his “undesirable” diagnosis, and for a split second, the Mother Bear in me nearly jumped up and clawed the speaker to death. And then, I swallowed, and calmed down.

When fetal Nat was growing inside me, all I ever asked of God was that he be healthy and not a criminal. Maybe I should have asked for more, but I always like to prioritize and those two things were the bottom line. God is busy and may be a little ADD; you have to pick and choose what you ask of hm.

The problem is not with the term or diagnosis of “retardation.” The problem is that some people are viewed as less-than by others. I think it is up to me as Nat’s advocate to set them straight. You misuse the term “retarded,” treat it like it is a bad thing, and you will hear from me. Growl.


When people call me a retard, often my response (if I can get one out) is something like “Rather be a retard like me than a bigot like you,” or “You say that like it’s bad,” or something else like that.

Some people take issue with me for using the word back at people like that (and for referring to myself that way at times when referencing others’ views of me — I view ‘retard’ as a sociological category rather than a diagnosis), but it seems to be the only way I can constructively deal with it. Better than making the word only what people like that want it to mean.

I even know someone who got the “glad I’m a retard and not someone like you” response and never called anyone that again.

— added by ballastexistenz on Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 11:45 am

Intellectual disability and cognitive disability are terms that academics and scholars here and in the UK and Australia have long been using.

Better than “pin head” (what I hear on the playground).

— added by kristina on Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 12:53 pm

Ballastexistenz wrote:

“I view ‘retard’ as a sociological category rather than a diagnosis.”

I agree. Retardation is a very subjective concept. Human intelligence is much too complex to be reduced to a number on a test.

As Mottron and Dawson’s recent research has shown, a person can score in the ‘retarded’ range when taking one type of IQ test, while scoring in the ‘gifted’ range on another. It all depends on what attributes the testers want to measure.

— added by Bonnie Ventura on Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 2:27 pm

Regarding other terms, “developmental disability” can also refer to autism, cerebral palsy, anything physical or cognitive that happens growing up and changes the way a person develops, etc. “Cognitive disability” can also refer to what happens to someone after brain injury or stroke, or autism, or dyslexia, or a number of other things.

So those two have never seemed to me to be acceptable substitutes (even if looking for substitutes) just because they’re broader terms and likely to be really confusing that way.

— added by ballastexistenz on Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 3:21 pm

Amen! THe picture on the bottom is beautiful…..

— added by Kristen on Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 9:50 pm

Great essay Susan. I was watching Barbara Walters interview Patrick Dempsey last month and she was talking about his dyslexia. She said “I heard when you were in school you had to be with the retarded kids?”(saying this with a wince on her face) He said that was correct. She then said “Did that make you feel stupid?”. His response was “yes”. As a mother of a son who is considered retarded by our society I took great offense to this interview and was completely disappointed in Barbara that day. Susan, what you wrote was excellent and I can only hope Barbara visits your web site and gets informed. Thank you!!

— added by Anonymous on Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 5:10 pm

also i have read that IQ tests can be culturally biased. this can imply that they don’t mean as much as our society supposes them to mean.

— added by Natalia on Monday, August 21, 2006 at 8:58 pm

What a beautiful photograph of you and your Natty – he is lovely. Your blog does so open my eyes and makes me think deeply about so many different things. I too detest the use of that word – it is almost as if it has become a swear word. My son is what you would I guess consider very High Functioning – and we just got the diagnoses a bit ago so I am still working through all of the emotions and whatnot. I get all Mother Bear about so much when it comes to him and autism because of researching it – and learning about it – it is just incredible how much I realize others just don’t understand or want to understand about it… the same ones that “slip” and use the “r” word without thought to how it affects those around them. All the best to you and your gorgeous family. đŸ™‚

— added by Anonymous on Sunday, November 11, 2007 at 1:53 am