“Are you retarded?” Or how about the ever popular, “You’re such a ‘Tard….” (Had to capitalize that – my computer kept correcting it to yard…) We’ve all heard these before – perhaps these days in the schoolyard, or searching back, in our childhoods.
So – when is it okay to call somebody retarded?
Recently, a FB friend posted a video by Elizabeth Plank, who asked this very question. She is a Senior Editor at Mic, a leading news and media company for young people. I’ve included the video – it’s a short watch. She interviews a young man who has Down’s Syndrome, and who also happens to be gay. She also interviews his Mom. He is a delightful, joyful, artistic, enthusiastic young man and I can’t imagine that he hasn’t brought anything but a great deal of joy and happiness to his family.
Out of curiosity, I googled “mental retardation.” The Wikipedia definition is as follows: “Mental Retardation, also known as intellectual disability, a disorder characterized by significantly impaired cognitive functioning and deficits in adaptive behaviours.” Okay – so that’s the technical definition. Down’s Syndrome is “typically associated with physical growth delays, characteristic facial features, and mild to moderate intellectual disability.”
If you have a child with special needs, and particularly, a child with developmental delays, you are definitely familiar with the DSM-5. This stands for the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. This is the go to manual for figuring out what your kid’s deal is; the Bible as it were (if you’re into that). Interestingly, there is no definition in this manual for mental retardation. First of all, to characterize someone as “retarded” is too non-specific (in a clinical sense). But I did look up Autistic. The definition is; “These disorders are characterized by social deficits (check) and communication difficulties (check), stereotyped or repetitive behaviours (check) and interests, sensory issues (double check!!), and in some cases, cognitive delays.” So – this last part is very important. If your child is autistic, there may or may not be cognitive delays. Hence – my concern regarding the whole “retarded” moniker. There are many ugly words out there – they can hurt so much more effectively than a quick jab to the chin.
When Henry was young, people would ask me what was “wrong” with him? Can you imagine doing that to a stranger? Imagine how I felt…. I would mumble something about a speech delay, while inside I was screaming… “I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S “WRONG”!!!! WE ARE HAVING HIM SEEN BY SPECIALISTS AND NOBODY CAN GIVE US A DEFINITIVE ANSWER!!! DON’T YOU THINK I’M TRYING AS HARD AS I CAN?! DON’T YOU THINK HE IS?!” And then I would continue on as quickly as possible – my mind a whirling dervish of thoughts.
When people casually and carelessly throw out words like “retarded”, they have no idea how hurtful they can be. I know how hard Brian and I have worked to try to get Henry to where he is today. And the amount of work that it takes for Henry to navigate his way through a world that is too often judgmental and conformist is staggering. I can only imagine it…
So – when is it okay to use the word “retarded”?