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USING THE "R" WORD: WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN?

By Kayla Giacin
Wednesday, February 8, 2012

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?"

-Henry David Thoreau

I’m willing to bet that most parents would be upset if their child came home from school one day and used the “f” word.  I’m sure the same would go for any of the other of the many swears that are commonly used in society.

But unless personally affected by it, I’m also willing to bet that many parents wouldn’t even flinch if their child came home using the “r” word.  That’s right, the “r” word.  Although other swear words are most certainly inappropriate, I personally believe that the overall implication of using the word “retarded” as a part of everyday language is just as negative and possibly has more negative implications than the use of many of the other words that we use on an everyday basis.

By definition, the word “retarded” is used to describe something that “moves or proceeds slowly; to be delayed or impede upon.”  The phrase “mentally retarded” might be used to describe a person with a significant learning disability or developmental issue.

However, this word has come to be used in place of words such as “stupid” and although not originally created to mean this, it’s used less and less in clinical settings because of the negative connotation that society has put upon it.  If a group of friends are hanging out and one of the kids does something annoying, his friends might tell him to “stop being retarded”.  A person commuting to work that gets cut off by another driver might mutter “retard” under his breath.  How did a word that was originally used to describe certain conditions come to mean something so cruel?  As many of us know, someone who is retarded, as it was originally meant, knows that this person might be capable of things that most others and just has to take a different route to get there.  Even if they’re unable to achieve the same things as others, we also know that challenges that give a different perspective of the world tends to create people with much more empathy and compassion towards others.

While writing this, I found out that words such as “moron” and” idiot” were once words used to describe different levels of the IQ scale that indicated a lower intelligence.  They were eliminated from the scale because over time, people abused by using them as a negative description of others.  I have to wonder why we changed the descriptions on the IQ scale to accommodate the use of these words instead of changing our attitudes towards what they actually stand for.  This has been happening to the use of the word retarded as many organizations are now changing their names to accommodate the stigma that has been attached to it.

I think that many people tend to make fun of or ignore issues that they don’t know a lot about, and knowledge about people with disabilities and developmental disorders falls into this category.  Many people that care about this issue might feel like they can’t make an impact by themselves, but I think that spreading what you know to others and showing compassion towards everyone regardless of something that makes them different can be contagious.  I’d rather make a movement to accept the word “retarded” for what it was set out to mean than change the phrasing we use to describe certain conditions.  Accepting this word will mean that we have become better at accepting differences amongst each other rather than accepting ignorance as something that is just part of everyday life. 

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