The majority of my childhood spanned the 90’s. Like many people my age, I grew up making fun of my friends by saying “duuuuuh” while holding a limp wrist to my chest. And I donned the stereotypical American youth saying “you’re such a retard”.
I’ll start this post in all honesty by saying I’m really torn about the “r-word”. I usually laugh when I hear it in movies (like Napoleon Dynamite, a caricature of American youth – not real life), but when Ann Coulter (a real life person) called Obama a retard on Twitter and then totally justified herself on Piers Morgan, I went into a momentary blind rage.
I don’t know why I’m so torn. Why I can call my husband a retard and we laugh (something I only do in private and with an exaggerated American accent) but when I hear someone else say it, it grates on my senses. When I hear people use the word, it makes my hairs stand on end, almost immediately, before I really even process what I’ve heard. It’s instinctive.
I’ve historically been a pretty judgemental person. A know-it-all. I’ve changed so much since the arrival of my beautiful daughter who has brought so much grace into my life and made me see that you really never know what it’s like to be someone else. You just. Don’t. Know. So along those lines, I never understood how some people of color could call each other the n-word and say that it was empowerment, a way to take the word back. I judged them as unintelligent, illiterate, uneducated. But now, I totally get what that’s all about. Because while I shudder when I hear someone use the word retard, I privately call my husband one. And when I do, it always feels like…well…like giving the “r-word” the middle finger, ya know? I do secretly think “I can use this word. YOU can’t!”
But on the whole, everything in me knows that “retard” is a slur. Of course like many slurs, it has roots in wholly appropriate language. Retarded is a real thing. Mental retardation happens. And I don’t shy away from this word when it needs to be used. When I asked the geneticist “is my daughter retarded?” she became uneasy at this word which has become politically incorrect. She said “we like to call it developmental delay.”
“Ok” I said. “So she’ll catch up?”
“Ok…so then it’s not delay. It’s retardation.”
She changed the subject and told me that should I get pregnant again, I should have an amnio before 20-something-weeks so I can abort early if I end up with another disabled fetus. Hey lady, way to take a mildly uncomfortable topic and segue into one of the most emotionally charged political subjects known to man. Hats off to you.
But she was wrong and sorely misinformed. Kids with Rett aren’t retarded. They’re locked-in. If that geneticist happens to be reading this, please…go to a conference or something before you ever talk to another Rett parent again.
Technical lingo aside, this word is now being used against people who are intellectually different from others (aren’t we all?). So it’s now a swear word and this is where I get conflicted. Should I allow others to determine the words I use?
No matter what conflicts I’m personally battling inside my own head (I over-think things, can ya tell?) one thing is certain. Words hurt. Words like ni**er, fag, retard…these words are a way to take away someone’s humanity. To make them a…thing. To marginalise them and say “you belong over there”. When people use words like retard, it’s prideful and superior. It says “I get to choose who and what you are”, placing yourself above others. And to people like me who care for a child with a severe disability, it just makes them look like someone without empathy. Or the ability to acknowledge that you don’t know what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes. It’s small-minded and highlights a severe case of emotional retardation.