A Word that Slips Off Our Tongue Without Thinking: Are Any of us Exempt?

It's a word used in daily discourse without thought. We want to express how backwards, messed up, dumb, hairbrained, or ridiculous something is, and it pops right out. It's too easy. Our youth use it nearly every other sentence, I kid you not. It slips off their tongue, devoid of any awareness that it refers to individuals with intellectual disabilities, that it stigmatizes these individuals, lessens them. And it's  just as easy to understand how they can not get it; they aren't talking about people who are disabled, they're talking about people who do dumb things but shouldn't, not them, not the real people who aren't....well, you know...they weren't even thinking about them. So, what's our problem? It's just a word, you know? No big deal. And when it thoughtlessly slips off our own tongues, too late to call it back, and we cringe because we weren't meaning to say it, we don't mean any harm, well we can either self-justify it or own it. We screwed up. We've got to change. We've got to stop using that word in casual coversation. We've got to stop thinking it's okay to laugh at.

Comedians have made their careers on it, dee-dee-dee. And we've laughed, because we know they're both not talking about those people and talking about those people, you know? And, the truth is, it cuts to a truth. People do stupid things, so it's become a short hand, but it should make your upper lip curl with disgust if you think it through, dwell on it, think of someone you know with a cognitive impairment and how you feel at the thought of someone mocking or ridiculing them, or of someone using them to mock or ridicule someone without an impairment who's been a dumbass.

It's time to look close, deeply at ourselves, our prejudices, and acknowledge that we all have them, that there's a group of folks we disparage. We need to question why. We need to challenge ourselves on our language, and acknowledge our slips and that we all have a ways to go towards accepting others who are different, with different challenges. We need to experience that dissonance, hold ourselves up to examination, and accept that we've got some dark sides that we need to bring out to the light.

I've got two decades worth of experience in parenting a special needs child, and I've watched the language on how we describe them change, watched the shift from mental retardation to intellectual disability as the first term has taken on the same stigma, same onus as the original three terms that we use with every bit the frequency of the "r" word. Watched as worked to find terminology that wouldn't take on such negative overtones, and tried to keep up with the name changes and shifts in perception.

I'm not roundly condemning the people who use the "r" word thoughtlessly; I don't think they are bad, evil people. I'm acknowledging that it's far too easy for any of us, all of us, to thoughtlessly use a word that disparages intellectual disability. And I'm not sure where dumbass fits in there, either, to be honest. I'm really not.

I'm asking for people to think when they hear that word, especially when it slips off their own tongue, or they act in a way that mocks the disabled:  Do you realize what you just did? Did you intend to do that? Do you understand that it demeans a group of people? I'm asking all of us to own it when we do it, to reflect on it, to feel the damage it does, and to work actively to change that, to work towards eradicating that word, and the other three (the two "i" words and and the "m" word) when discussing people, whomever they might be. Let's find a better way to address the less than ideal decisions people make. Let's find another way to talk to people we disagree with. And, maybe, just, maybe, let's examine dumbass, too.


kathleen said...

I have thought on this quite a bit recently. A word is a word is a word..I don't think the word "retarded" should have ever been used to describe anyone-ever.I do have a hard time understanding this campaign though,eradicating a word, does not make the attitude behind it disappear. What descriptor will be used in its place? Because there are always desciptors. We already have "special"..and really, when you hear the word "special" what does one think?
What concerns me about this campaign is that the point behind it will be lost. It just seems that taking issue with one word-makes it about the word and nothing else. For instance on a recent episode of "Family Guy" the character of Chris falls in love with a girl at school-she had downs syndrome. (The voice actress playing this character has downs syndrome.) Some people were appalled. It was interesting to read some the criticism of this episode. It would appear that many thought the idea of him being interested in a girl with downs syndrome was horrific-some sort of joke. And therin lies the problem. (there is more to the criticism of that episode than just this)
I guess in a long winded way, I'm saying that it is attitudes that need to be changed.I'm not sure that making it a campaign against a word is going to do that.

KWombles said...

It's not enough to say don't use the word. The word isn't the problem. The original triad of words are disconnected from their earlier usages, and it really looks like the "r" word is as well, especially with the younger generation.

That's not a sufficient excuse for using language that hurts a group of individuals, though.

Those with intellectual disabilities have the right to speak out on this and say stop this; stop dismissing us and making fun of us. Family members and friends have the right to say that the language, and more importantly the attitude behind the language, is hurtful. And they should be heard.

If we can take this campaign and use it to have a discussion about acceptance and inclusion, then we'll have gone further than saying "shame on you; you're not a good person for using that word!"

If folks use this campaign as a way to make themselves feel morally superior to those who use the word, what's the point? It hasn't fixed anything or advanced society any.

The attitude that says those who are different, who have challenges the neurotypical does not face, are fair game for ridicule and mockery must be changed.

And I can see that there are some readers who will want to cry out that I've mocked them (ahem, you know who you are) and call me a hypocrite, but there's no winning with that kind of person.

None of us are perfect and we all make mistakes; marginalizing a group of people for their differences is incredibly easy to do and innate in our behavior.

This is a complex issue and I hope readers will weigh in. :-)

Clay said...

I'm confused about just which words you're talking about. I know of the "r" word, the "m" word, and at least one of the "i" words, but does this mean I shouldn't call Mitchell an ignoranus? Or use the Bugs Bunny quote, "What a maroon!"? What about archaic Yiddish words - the other "n" word (nebbish), or an "s" word (schlub)? Seems to me we could replace them all with another "m" word, (Mitchell).

I think I'd vote for that one. ;-)

KWombles said...

Ah, Clay, even the Lord took a day off.

It's well noted, though, that even if we were successful at removing the "r" word from everyday flippant usage that another word would emerge to take its place.

The three original terms for the intellectually disabled were imbecile, idiot and moron. They have entered the popular vernacular and it would appear that most individuals are not aware of their original meaning.

I honestly don't know whether the campaign will make any difference. If it draws some attention to the need to treat those with disabilities with respect, then it's a worthwhile endeavor.

I'm not sure about the merchandise that's connected with it, nor does it show where the funds for those shirts, water bottles, and stickers go, if it goes to help anyone. That bothers me. It seems like organizations take an idea like this and the International Stand Up to Bullying Day, tie it to merchandise and organized events. No mention of where the funds raised go, no sense that it extends to making a daily difference.

The whole subject leaves me feeling a bit blue.

For another point of view on the banning of the r word, please read
Christopher M. Fairman's piece in The Washington Post at:

Clay said...

"Ah, Clay, even the Lord took a day off."

Well, there's this for explanation. ;-)

Alexander Cheezem said...

My opinion about that word is about summed up by one of Amanda's old videos which I fully agree with. It can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qn70gPukdtY .

Frankly, it's not the word itself that's the problem. Semantically, the phrase "mentally retarded" simply means "developing slowly, mentally speaking". The problem is all of the connotations and implications that it's picked up over the years, coupled with all of the stigma that's built up in regards to the condition it refers to.

... and I think I'll expand this into a full blog entry (if I get the chance to write it). I don't want to go off on a tangent, and it's a pretty long explanation...

christophersmom said...

The gays and lesbians have created a cool campaign (ads, website) called Think Before You Speak, because just like "it's so retarded" one of the main slangs the kids are using is "this is so gay". The special needs community could do something similar:


usethebrains godgiveyou said...

In our house, we were never allowed to call anyone an "idiot", which is my mother-in-laws favorite word. Mom was ahead of her time. She "got" the demeaning nature of the word, and it's unkind roots of separation.

But dumbass...I dunno Kim, that's my go to word for a foolish person, my fathers favorite word. Maybe I should just go to "ass", or how "AS(S)-inine".

Christophersmom is spot on about "gay". That put down wasn't around when I was growing up.