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How the Word ‘Retarded’ Hurts The Developmentally Disabled

| January 15, 2013

Beyond words. (RaeBerlin)

Beyond words. (RaeBerlin)

By Luis Viera

The great U.S. Supreme Court Justice and American civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall once wrote that the plight of persons with developmental disabilities was not unlike a “regime of state-mandated segregation…that in its virulence and bigotry rivaled, and indeed paralleled, the worst excesses of Jim Crow.”

Despite progress, though, it is undeniable that Americans with developmental disabilities still remain second-class citizens in the eyes of the law and our fellow human beings. Those with developmental disabilities are rarely heard from in our popular culture or social policy or political dialogue. Part of this tragic injustice is the ridicule of the developmentally disabled, and there is no greater symbolic gesture of this ridicule than the accepted use of the word “retarded” in day-to-day speech.

As many social minorities know, words can hurt and have great meaning and power. Throughout our history, words demeaning African Americans, Jews, gays and lesbians, Latinos and other groups were once popularly used, and then, rightfully, discarded. Often, when we watch an old movie and hear the casual use of a term we today consider prejudiced, the response ranges from amusement to shock.

Yet, the ugly use of the “R-word” persists in our culture.

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When I was growing up, I saw clearly how this word can hurt. I have an older brother, Juan, who is developmentally disabled. Though he is now 42 years old, Juan has the capacity of a five or six year old. Unlike other 42 year olds, Juan’s main interests in life involve playing, watching Sesame Street and his three daily meals. To me and my family, there is no greater representation of God’s call for us to love one another, without qualification or equivocation, than Juan.

Juan and others like him are truly our society’s most vulnerable. They must rely on others for advocacy, but there often is no voice to advocate on their behalf. Those parents, family friends and siblings of Juan and others like him are Juan’s voice to an often ignorant and cruel world.

I have seen first hand the sting of the R word. Every time I hear the its improper use, I think of how my parents must have felt when they heard about their then-young son, Juan, being mocked on account of who he was. I distinctly remember as a child hearing Juan use this word because of how often he had been mocked by other using it in school. For parents of persons with developmental disabilities, one-time dreams of their child’s getting married, going to college and having a career disappear in favor of a dream merely for their child’s dignity. As Bruce Springsteen sang, “all those things that seemed important, well mister they vanished right into the air.”

Often, those who use the R word do so without harmful intent. However, the use of this ugly word, even if done in a joking manner, affirms the ugly notion that those with developmental disabilities are somehow not quite human or worthy of our respect. The use of this word effectively excludes those with developmental disabilities from our households, cultures and the family of America.


It is long past time for the R word to be placed into the ash heap of our history. When you use this term, you not only ridicule someone with a developmental disability, but you hurt their entire community. That includes their family, whose hope of a normal life for their child came to a tragic halt with the diagnosis of a developmental disability. If you are a parent, think of the dreams you have for your child, and imagine the kind of hurt you would have if your child were not only given a diagnosis of a disability but then mocked for it.

I have always believed that our country has been defined by a long 237-year journey towards equality. Little by little over our great history, thanks to the sacrifices of brave Americans, we came to expand the idea of liberty and equality to all white men who owned land, then, under Andrew Jackson, to all white men. Eventually, we would include Native Americans, women, African Americans, immigrants, Latinos and Jews. Today, we see great strides made by gay and lesbian Americans towards equality.

The journey of those with developmental disabilities is no less American than the journey of these others. But in making that journey, many of those with developmental disabilities lack a voice. They rely on the voice and the moral and social conscience of those men and women whose moral compass leads them to see beyond the ridicule traditionally heaped upon this population and instead to see a son or daughter of God endowed with a right to dignity and respect.

And that is what this campaign against the R word is all about: affording those with developmental disabilities and their families the dignity and respect they deserve.

Luis Viera is an attorney who practices in the Tampa Bay area. He can be contacted by email here.

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19 Responses for “How the Word ‘Retarded’ Hurts The Developmentally Disabled”

  1. The Truth says:

    Unfortunately, many in our sad society (see: Ann Coulter) believe this word is not offensive in any way. It’s baffling to me that she thinks other derogatory words like the N-word are off the table but a word like “retard” is okay. I guess that explains why she’s on Fox News…

  2. Charity De Leon says:

    Thank you for this post. It is so important that we stand together against ignorance and give our loved ones, our community a voice. I am a mother of seven one of my children is a child with special needs. I never realized how close minded and cruel people are until I became a mother to a child with special needs.

  3. CHARGE MOM says:

    As a mother of not one but two boys with significant Developmental Delay and medical issues, THANK YOU! Your thought provoking words will hopefully cause some to pause and reconsider their use of this word in their language. You don’t know how much this means to have others out there taking up this cause, and with such intelligently written words! Your brother is blessed to have you in his life. God Bless.

    • Howard Duley says:

      After producing one developmentaly delayed child why didn’t you just say no ? That’s what Nancy Regan said.

      • Nancy N. says:

        Whoa! Who are you to decide what children are worth giving birth to?

        And in any event, depending on how the children are spaced, the parents may not have even been aware of the first child’s issues yet when having the second one. My daughter’s issues weren’t diagnosed until she was 2.5 years old – and that was early for autism at the time. It’s very common for families to already have another child by the time the first one is that age.

  4. mark caldwell says:

    Wonderful article Luis. We fight this battle with you for my 23 year old son born with Down syndrome and all of those humans wiht a developmental/intelectual disability all over our country and we campaign for the elimination of this word in common human vocabulary. Our teenagers today still use this word commonly although most of them would never consider using the “n” word or “fag” or JAP, etc. any longer. This must end. We must get the teachers on board with this campaign as well. Thank you for bringing this probelm to light in your local community.

  5. Marisa says:

    How about the simple fact as I seem to have to
    Explain to people over and over this point —
    You are using the word retarded in place of the
    Word stupid. So now you’re implying that people
    Who are in fact technically mentally retarded are stupid and they are NOT!!
    Are people really too ignorant to come up with a better word? It’s mind
    Boggling to me as a mom who has a child with autism
    How many people don’t have issue throwing the word around even in
    Front of me & my family. Thank you for the article that I will surely be sharing on my
    Fb page

  6. Sean says:

    Interestingly enough the use of the word “retarded” is very much a US phenomenon. Across the Atlantic in Ireland and Britain it is rarely heard. We tend ot use terms such as a person with special needs, or a person with an intellectual or learning disability.

    • Lottie says:

      actually i hear people often throwing the word retarded around, just today in my english class the boys on my table were saying that piggy in lord of the flies is retarded. i get the word retarded directed at me quite a lot as well.

    • Jan says:

      Rubbish!! My daughter has autism and is continually called “Retard” in school despite the fact that she is a member of MENSA and has an IQ in the top 1%. We live in Berkshire, UK. It is the most common insult that is thrown at her by her peers at school. If you live in the UK and don’t realise this you’ve got your head well and truly stuck up your a**e! I get really sick of teachers, etc. pretending that this type of bullying doesn’t go in in our schools!

  7. Nancy N. says:

    THANK YOU for this. As the parent of a child with a developmental disability (autism) I cringe when I hear that word, yet most people around me think nothing of casually throwing around phrases like “that’s retarded.” I find that 99% of the time asking someone to not use the term because it is offensive and degrading to people like my daughter doesn’t result in them stopping using it – instead, I get labeled oversensitive and a politically correct zealot. People regularly argue with me that “it’s not offensive to people with developmental disabilities.” Umm, hello? Think I’m a bit more qualified to make that judgement than you and I FIND IT OFFENSIVE!

    I complained to Facebook awhile back about a posting that used the word retarded a half dozen times in a big long rant, reporting it under the “hate speech” category. Facebook refused to remove it, responding to me that the word wasn’t offensive! I tried to make a page to get community support to get Facebook’s attention to the matter, but among my hundreds of friends, I could only get literally a handful of likes for it, all from friends with kids with developmental issues. No one else saw the problem!

    We have a long way to go on this problem.

    • Mary-Beth says:

      Nancy N. – I like the idea; can we do some sort of group for this and try for more likes? :-)

    • Time to grow up says:

      People need to get a spine and stop whining. First off I have a relative who is “Developmentally Disabled” aka Mentally retarded. Here’s the dictionary meaning of retarded “slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress” Thats It!!! And get this in comparison to most people he is exactly that. And get this WE NEVER MAKE FUN OF HIM AND LOVE HIM TO DEATH. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is limited in his capacities. Sanitizing vernacular is political correctness which is phony semantics. Words only have power that YOU GIVE THEM. STOP GIVING THEM POWER.

  8. Geezer says:

    People need to be a little more sensitive towards other people’s circumstances.
    Isn’t it patently obvious how low our society has devolved?
    Manners and consideration are rapidly becoming quaint and retrograde concepts.

    We’re getting dumber as a nation.

  9. Flagler Native says:

    Webster says: retarded is an adjective describing slowed or delayed in development, esp: mentally.

    It’s a word…get over it.
    You all are waaaaaaaaay to sensitive and are blowing this out of proportion. If I had a mentally challenged child or family member they unfortuantely would be “retarded” or “slowed mentally.”

    You all must really be bored focusing your efforts over changing a descriptive word…geez.

    • Nancy N. says:

      It’s not the word itself that anyone is trying to change. It’s the USE of it as an INSULT that we are trying to change.

      It’s no different than gays trying to stop the use of the word “fag” or people from using the phrase “that’s so gay” because the underlying intent of using it is pejorative.

    • Lottie says:

      yes the word retarded is just a word, but so are all other words that people flip out over, the N-word is just a word, fag is just a word, its not protesting over whether it is a word or not, or the use of the word properly, its the use of the word as an insult. (oh and by the way webster also says the N-word means a black person or a member of a dark skinned race, that is true just like what webster said about retarded but people still find it offensive). unless you have had the word used against you as an insult you will never know how hurtful it is and how derogatory it is.

    • Jan says:

      Flagler Native,
      Yes, it is a word and I, personally, have no problem with its proper use. However, it is too often used as a hurtful insult.

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