February 16, 2010 Leave a comment
Apparently, there's been a bit of a micro-scandal based on reports that Rahm Emmanuel referred to the the strategies of liberal activists on health care as "[expletive] retarded." If he's talking about Jane Hamsher and friends, he's right, but that's beside the point, here, which is that it has brought about a debate on the use of the word "retarded." I've always been particularly interested in this debate as when I was a kid, we referred to my older brother who has severe autism as "retarded." There was no slur intended, that's simply what people like him were called back in the day when most people did not know the word autism. Now, of course, I have a son who in addition to his autism truly is "retarded" or intellectually disabled as we like to say now. He is seven, but generally functions on a cognitive level of a 2-3 year old. Kim likes the term "developmental delays" but to me "delay" implies he'll catch up. He won't. I honestly don't have a problem with the word retarded, again, probably because of my experience with my brother, but given the world we live in, I generally use "intellectual disability" or "cognitive impairment" (I like the clinical sound of that, for some reason). Anyway, by way of that long preface, in the Post on Sunday, Christopher Fairman had an interesting column arguing against "banning" the "r" word. This particular section really resonated given my experience with my brother:
The irony is that the use of "mental retardation" and its variants was
originally an attempt to convey greater dignity and respect than
previous labels had. While the verb "retard" — meaning to delay or
hinder — has roots in the 15th century, its use in reference to mental
development didn't occur until the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
when medical texts began to describe children with "retarded mental
development," "retarded children" and "mentally retarded patients." By
the 1960s, "mental retardation" became the preferred medical term,
gradually replacing previous diagnostic standards such as "idiot,"
"imbecile" and "moron" — terms that had come to carry pejorative
As I was growing up in the 1970s, my father worked for the Texas
Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, one of the
now-renamed state agencies. The term "retardation" was common in my
home and life, but it was sterile and clinical. It is only in the past
generation that the medical term turned into the slang "retard" and
gained power as an insult.
The next day, the Post followed up with a column from Timothy Shriver (the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics). I was not entirely persuaded by his argument, though:
And the word "retard," whatever its history, reflects a massive problem.
Mental Disability Rights International has found evidence around the
world of horrific conditions — starvation, abuse, isolation — in
institutions serving people with intellectual disabilities. It happens
in this country. In Texas, caregivers were recently found to be forcing
residents of an institution to awake in the middle of the night and
fight one another while staffers cheered and taunted. Here in
Washington, repeated investigations have revealed people with
intellectual disabilities as the victims of abuse, indifference and
Something tells me these things would still be true if the victims were labeled "intellectually disabled." If people are going to use the word as a slur, obviously it largely loses it's legitimate medical meaning, but I think Shriver definitely overstates the case against the word. Anyway, regardless, given my personal experiences, I find this a really interesting issue.