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It's Time for the Word Retarded to Go Away

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Whatever words researchers have chosen to use to refer to people with intellectual disability have been turned into pop culture insults, such as idiot, imbecile, and moron. In more recent decades when researchers favored the term mentally retarded, “retard” became the preferred insult. In fact I heard a student utter this in my class just a couple weeks ago.

The student, I am sure, did not intend to offend an entire group of people. Instead, she was using a word she learned to be a good stand-in for asinine. Personally, I’d like to see asinine make a comeback. It’s a good word. It nicely calls out asinine behavior without denigrating a group of people.

In the fall of 2012, after a presidential debate, Ann Coulter tweeted “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard” (https://twitter.com/AnnCoulter/status/260581147493412865). On the Special Olympics website the next day John Franklin Stephens responded. “I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.” His time was well-spent; he wrote a beautiful, well-crafted response. He closed with this, “Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much. Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.” He signed it, “A friend you haven’t made yet.”

More recently, a New York Times article (May 7, 2016) reflected on the use of the term intellectual disability, the favored term for the last decade. The article provides a nice historical summary of both the language used and how people with intellectual disabilities were treated. Michael Wehmeyer (director of the University of Kansas Beach Center on Disability) notes that intellectual disability is “the first term that doesn’t refer to the condition as a defective mental process – slow, weak, feeble… Intellectual disability conveys that it is not a problem within a person, but a lack of fit between that person’s capacities and the demands of the environment in which the person is functioning.” Although he personally prefers cognitive disability (and so do I, not that I really get to have an opinion on the matter).

It is difficult to imagine how “intellectual disability” could be twisted into an insult. While those who think of such things work on that, the rest of us can work on helping our students understand how offensive it is to casually toss around the word retarded as an insult. This is an easy topic to tackle when covering development, intelligence, or perhaps even better, stereotyping and prejudice.

We seem to have largely moved past “that’s so gay” as an insult. We can do the same with “that’s so retarded.”

Signed,

The niece of a woman with an intellectual disability

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.