Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Retarded Issue

OK, I’m back. I’ve heard from a number of you asking why I haven’t posted anything in a few weeks. Some of you even told me I was slacking off. Well, the reason I hadn’t posted anything was because I was on vacation.

Yeah, I know, I could’ve posted from on the road, especially since I took my laptop with me, and every motel we stayed at had WiFi. I had intended to do that. But you know, at the end of a long day of sightseeing and driving, you just want to plop down on your nice comfy bed, and not write anything except a few postcards.

But I suppose that, as some of my students might say, that’s a retarded excuse, and that gets right to the heart of the matter. Is using the words “retarded” and “retard” as insults insensitive to people who are “developmentally disabled?” Should using those words as insults be considered insensitive to people who are developmentally disabled?

I don’t know.

I know that there are people who really do get upset when they hear those words thrown around as casual insults. These are usually people who know someone who suffers from some form of developmental disability, and I understand what they’re saying. On the other hand, I know that over time the English language changes.

It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that when the words moron and idiot are thrown around as casual insults. Yet both of these words used to be accepted clinical terms for specific levels of mental retardation. Now they’re just garden-variety insults that no one get much bent out of shape about.

In fact, while typing a paper for a friend 20 years ago, I was astounded to hear that the former Syracuse Developmental Center was originally founded as the New York State School for Idiots. More people now are shocked that the school was called that than are offended by hearing the word "idiot" used as a general insult. But it was the proper term at the time, and has become insensitive in retrospect because succeeding generations have used it as an insult, and it fell out of clinical use as a result.

As a teacher, I do firmly get on my kids when they use "retarded" as an insult; just as I do when they similarly use "gay." However, knowing what I know about the language, I often wonder why we don't make a similar fuss about us using "idiot" and "moron." In fact, a common joke I use in my computer classes is warning them about the dreaded ID-10-T error, which if you write it out without the hyphens becomes ID10T, which of course looks like idiot (unless the student writes it out as IDTENT, which has happened, and we won't even go there).

I suspect that we are in a very uneasy "transition time" where the word "retarded" is going the route of the words before it. I suspect that as those terms fell into the vernacular, they stopped being used clinically; and perhaps that same thing will happen with "retarded." Perhaps it's already happening, after all, I don't regularly hear people referred to as mentally retarded anymore, but instead, I hear of them as having Down's Syndrome or being developmentally challenged. Heck, even the American Association on Mental Retardation changed its name a few years ago to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. So perhaps here the issue isn't so much the public's use of the word as an insult, but some people’s insistence on hanging onto that term both as a clinical descriptor and a source of identity.

I think the time has come to let it go.

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