Susan's Blog

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hatred “R” Us

As we have been hearing, Special Olympics is on a tear to get the use of the word “retarded” taken out of usage. I am all for this; I bought my “Spread the word to End the Word” tee shirt, which I and many many others across the globe will wear on March 3 to this end (and to end this).

We have also been hearing about the controversy over some of the proposed changes to the DSM-V (Kevin Leitch does a great job illustrating this controversy), whereby the diagnosis of “Asperger’s Syndrome” will now be folded into the Autism Spectrum Disorder in general. Some “Aspies” (not all!) are feeling uncomfortable or downright angry at being lumped in with the other ends of the Autism Spectrum, with the more severely involved cases of autism. I heard something about how they didn’t want to have the same dx as “adults who needed diaper changes.” Those who have spoken this angrily are being taken to task for their attitude towards severe autism, which frequently is accompanied by mental retardation. (At the same time, the new DSM also proposes leaving out mention of the high numbers of autistics with coginitive delays).

What’s going on is people are being forced to look at something they do not want to look at. Mental retardation can often accompany autism. Mental retardation is a tough row to hoe. But — it doesn’t have to be as hard as it has become. The struggle of having some sort of physical or mental limitation is hard enough, but we always add to that a value judgment. People see mental retardation and its accompanying difficulties as something to be ashamed of. I think we have to acknowledge that and figure out where we go from there.

Since the beginning of time people have been trying to distinguish themselves from others whom they deemed were less than them somehow. Each time this has happened, groups rise up and protest being made lesser. They create awareness. They point out the easy steps towards awareness, towards remedying the pain. We all see the struggles of African Americans, gays, Jews, et al. Change begins with words. Then you get laws in place. Then, at last, you start to get social change. But that takes a long, long time. But — okay, it’s still worthwhile. Separate drinking fountains were abolished by law, Ruby Bridges was given a military escort to a white school. But until enough time and discussion are spent on these issues, you don’t get the change in attitudes. Because even if everyone stops using the word “retard,” there will still be so many who hate the concept of cognitive delay, who feel that it is the worst thing on earth to be that way.

Almost two years ago, I wrote about the r-word debate. There I made the point that yes, it was terrible the way people often unconsciously used the word “retard” as a substitute for “stupid.” Some use it consciously, and they make fun of people with cognitive disabilities purposefully. They see them as beneath them, as sub-human. I wrote,

“when I think about Nat’s loveliness and complexity and I realize that, because of his IQ, others may indeed miss that entirely, I feel it like a knife in my heart. Because Nat is so much more than a test score, or an arrangement of chromosomes. Nat is a regular person, neither idiot nor angel, with flaws and virtues like all of us. I, like all mothers, want others to really know him and to love him, not to revile him.”

But I made another point as well: Is stigma in the eye of the beholder? Or is stigma located in the heart of the stigmatized? Was Hester Prynne degraded by having to wear the A and admit to being an adulteress, or was the shame ultimately on her community for judging her so harshly? We know how that story ends, after all. In the end, wasn’t the point “Let all who are without sin cast the first stone?”

The Special Olympics campaign to end the r-word is only the first step. This is the raising-awareness step.

I will wear my “Spread the Word to End the Word” on March 3, because I see it as the first step towards creating awareness, towards making people really look at the word and think about it.

But — I feel in my heart that ending the word will not end the shaming until we get rid of the hate for difference.


It's ironic that "mentally retarded" was coined because it was thought to be a kinder way of referring to mentally challenged people. Before that it was perfectly fine to call them idiots. I suppose there was, once upon a time, a campaign to end the use of the "i" word and replace it with the more politically correct "retarded."
I'm completely on board with calling people what they prefer to be called. has anyone taken a poll? What is the preferred term among the special population?

— added by Anonymous on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 6:06 pm


The issue is not what people want to be called, although that is a reasonable consideration. The issue is, as Susan says, using the R word (or any other word that is used as label for people with intellectual handicaps) as a put-down. If we don't do that, people will just use the next word as a put-down too.

There is also a campaign to get kids to stop saying "That's so gay." In this case it should be easier to see that this issue is not that homosexuals do not want to be called "gay" (in this case, they actually do want to be called that) but that they do not want "gay" used as an insult.

"Ban the use of the R word as an insult" would not fit so well on a button, but that is what the real point is.

This is not obvious to lots of people. There was a column in the Washington Post yesterday by an author who did not get it.

— added by VAB on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Change starts with you!

Why not use the words intellectual disability?

If you want change…

— added by Anonymous on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 6:40 pm

These things are so complicated. The word has become something more than just a word. What it originally meant isn't the problem, it's what people have turned it into. I'm afraid, too, that the next word will eventually take on something more than it is meant to.
It is a different world we live in, those of us who have family members who have disabilities and those of us who have dedicated our lives to helping them. I truly forget sometimes, that the days I spend surrounded by people with autism and a myriad of other differences is somehow not the "real" world. It's actually a much nicer world, kinder and gentler if you will.
A friend of mine is working in NYC towards taking the words mentally retarded out of federal language. They have politicians on board, which is great, showing them doing something truly good for a change.
Even Massachusetts, which has long been a safe haven for people with disabilities, only just this past summer changed DMR to DDS. I'm not sure why it took so long.
It's a great fight to wage. Where do the tshirts come from?

— added by michele on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 6:54 pm

You can find the tee shirts on the Special Olympics site I think.

— added by Susan Senator on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Thank you, Susan, for your insight, compassion, and for wearing your t-shirt proudly. I always cringe at the word "retarded" and will be happy if it becomes a term of the past. I think for all of us – until we can accept the most unacceptable parts of our own being, we will not be able to accept the differences of others. To say, it is an inside job, is a beginning. When we can love and honor our selves – we can love and honor all G-d's creations. Elaine Hall, CoachE,

— added by Elaine on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 12:43 am

For the record, the controversy over Asperger's in DSM V tends to overshadow other changes, one of which is the end of the R word and it's replacement with intellectual disability.

— added by The author on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 4:58 am


— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 11:57 am

Great points Susan. Very nicely stated. I too am troubled by the "hierarchy" I see in the disability community. And yes, for the most part, individuals with cognitive disabilities are at the bottom of that hierarchy. Until we change that attitude, there can be no equality or true respect for ALL. But I fully and totally support ending the use of the R-word as a step in the right direction. It makes my skin crawl to hear it. My state, Missouri, finally removed it from their department that serves individuals with disabilities. The former division of MRDD is now the Division of DD.

— added by Jane St John on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Since the birth of my beautiful Down Syndrome daughter 24 years ago, I prefer the words "Differently Abled." Works for me.

— added by foontou on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 12:16 pm

There is no shame in being mentally retarded. It is not the phrase that is demeaning, it is the intent behind it. Get rid of the phrase, and another will spring up in its' place. I feel it is far more important to educate the bullies about compassion for one's brothers and sister, disabled or not.

— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Yes!! Just what I've been saying: there is no shame in being mentally retarded, intellectually disabled, cognitively delayed. It is all in the way it is used and for now, the word "retard" has crossed over into being a slur because of how it is used.

— added by Susan Senator on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Wow! Powerful!

— added by Leisa Hammett on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 6:22 pm