Why I’m Not Afraid to Say “Retarded”


This particular article has been one in the making in my head for about 6 months now. It’s been close to my heart to write but I didn’t know when the appropriate time to post it would be. It would seem that I can’t keep my thoughts silent any longer. I want to add a different perspective to the “R-word” debate- one I haven’t seen or read yet. I’m quite sure there will be many people who immediately disagree with me, but I would ask you to just read on and see where I’m coming from.

Yesterday was the national #spreadthewordtoendtheword campaign; and while I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment, I do have some thoughts on how very sad it is that this absolutely innocuous word-“retardation”- has been vilified in a completely unfair way.

The words “retardation, retard, retardant” do not bother me one little bit. I’m not offended by them, I’m not hurt by them, and hearing them in conversation doesn’t cause me to run to the other side of the room.

Meet my retarded daughter, Anna. She was born with Trisomy 21, Down syndrome. And yes, she is retarded in many, many ways.

Meet Anna Leigh aka Little Miss!

Let me give you some background. I became familiar with the special needs community and started working with them back in 1998 while employed at a summer camp for disabled kids. I worked at this camp for 3 full summers. I met my husband, who was also working as a counselor there. Largely due to my interaction with this community, I got a BS in Psychology and eventually degrees in nursing as well. The earliest years of our marriage Gabe and I worked as program directors for a group home- we physically lived on-site with our clients. We were with them 24-7 for 3 years. Later, by God’s awesome plan, we had our very own special needs baby, Anna, who came into our family just 14 months ago. Around the same time, I became the medical director for the same camp that started it all. Crazy full-circle stuff right? Our entire family spends 3 months of each year living, playing with, serving, and loving on all sorts of people with special needs.

I know this community. I love and adore this community.

And, still, the word “retarded” doesn’t bother me.

Why you ask? Because there is power in words, but there is MORE power in understanding what those words MEAN. “Retarded” doesn’t bother me because “retarded” is simply and only a measure of time. It is an objective measurement to describe the growth of something. Merriam-Webster defines the word “retarded” (adjective) as slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development :  characterized by mental retardation. Moreover, the word “retard” which is really what all this flashpoint offense is over, simply means to slow up especially by preventing or hindering advance or accomplishment, synonyms include brake, decelerate, slow, slackenhalt, stophandicap, hinder, hobble, hold back, hold up, impede, inhibit, obstruct, set back, tie uparrest, check, constrain, curb, rein, restrain.

I am a nurse by primary vocation. I have a secondary degree in Biomedical Sciences. Over the course of many science classes during these degrees, the word “retard” or “retardation” comes up often. In fact, the word in used not rarely in many other avenues and situations as well- all of which involve the slowing or slowness of something. What the word is NOT is a diatribe on intelligence, personality, worth, or importance. “Retard” is a transitive verb that has been used for over 500 years as a descriptor of growth or advancement (or lack thereof). It’s meaning has nothing to do with good or bad, so at what point did slowness (i.e. retardation) become such a bad thing? Why does our society immediately equate being slow as having a negative connotation? I don’t get it. This poor word has been hijacked and it’s meaning completely changed!

Fire retardant slows or stops a fire- a good thing.

Chemotherapy retards and hinders cancerous cells from growing- a good thing.

Antibiotics retard and impede bacteria’s ability from spreading in the body- a good thing.

Retardation can be (and IS) and very. good. thing.

So what is the deal with avoiding this word like the plague? Yes, I absolutely acknowledge that it has been and is being used a a flaming arrow of insult at people. I’m not arguing that the word is not slang for really mean insinuations. I understand that the heart of the usage can be very hurtful. But only if we let it be hurtful! I have had several people use this word towards Anna (one of which was very much trying to hurl an offense in our direction).

But it didn’t stick.

Happy 1st birthday! #caketasting

Because my daughter IS retarded in so many ways. She is slow in her physical development. She is slow to meet milestones verbally and cognitively. She is slow! And I adore that about her!

As a mom, I cherish the extra time it is taking her to learn to sit and crawl and pull up (which she still has no interest in) and walk (something that’s not even on her radar yet!) I revel in knowing that I am blessed with just that extra bit of time in each season with her, knowing that her retardation gives me just that many more moments with her. Her retardation has retarded my life as well. What a blessing!

As a frantic, first-world American I desire my life in general to be more retarded. I wish the pace would slacken, my eating would be hindered, my activities held up, my parenting patience elongated, my career path slowed. I imagine many of us have these same thoughts. We want retardation! Do you see what I’m getting at here? How many times do you see people celebrating (or longing for?!) the ability to take life more slowly? To “stop and smell the roses”? To watch the clouds sweep by or the rain patter on the grass? We long for the dizzying effects of our crazy life to slow down, to retard don’t we?

As a Christian I wish I were more retarded in my patience, in my speaking, in my anger. We are instructed to be this way dear ones! James 1:19 (NLT) “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” Have you ever prayed for retardation in these areas?

That this poor word has been associated negatively with these precious populations blows my mind. It is an objective measurement of time and ability and yet somehow has come to mean something entirely different. When did this innocent word become such a way to degrade intelligence? I mean seriously? Talk about inventing a new definition! Since when does “retard” (which is a verb not a noun…) mean ‘not smart’?  Why can something slow not also be gentle and kind, witty and valuable? How did “retarded” become synonymous with ‘less worthy’ or ‘not good enough’?

Retardation is measurable, it is objective, it carries no emotion, it carries no weight of worth.

Anna’s growth is slow, Anna’s cognitive milestones take more time than normal to reach. (Which by the way, what is normal anyway? That’s a discussion for another day…) There is no sentiment or emotion placed on her condition, it is what it is as I love to say. BUT her retardation has zero to do with her intelligence, her kindness, her gentleness, her happiness, her ability to touch people’s lives, her worth as a human being. So why on earth would I ever be offended or hurt when she’s called retarded? She IS retarded! She’s ALSO joyful, happy, silly, smart, gentle, patient, a blessing, valuable, and worthy! None of this is mutually exclusive.

When people are unwise enough to think they’re informing me of my child’s (or any of my friend’s) condition- I go out of my way to tell them they have no idea how correct they are. This special needs population are slowed, praise the Lord and to His glory they are so retarded! And they are better than me in almost everything that’s important in life because of it.

Oh, to be more retarded like they are! These amazing human beings that see the world in a way we unretarded people never will because we’re too busy being busy. They, who experience life and God in ways we never will or could because we are so very handicapped by our own actual disabilities (pride, selfishness, envy, power, greed, self-doubt, etc.) If there is anything at all that I’ve come to learn about the retarded population over the years is that they are by far better humans than I can ever hope to be. Their retardation, their slowness and arrested development, has freed them to see and pursue and learn and interact with life in much more meaningful ways. And I do long to be more like them in these ways!

Watching camper arrival together. Keeping an eye on everyone.

So yes, you who use the R-word, yes. You’ve hit the nail on the head! My daughter, my friends, are indeed retarded. And that quality within them is perhaps one of the most cherished things about them in my humble opinion. “Retard” does not offend me, even if you mean it for ill, because

  • You’re using it incorrectly (it takes the sting out when they’re basically saying {with as much venom as they can muster} “So, you have a delayed kid.” Not quite as powerful right?)
  • The word carries nothing but a scientific, innocuous definition for me… one that is actually completely correct. I don’t get offended when people hurl “You’re so blond!” at me… Saying “Anna is retarded.” has the same impact.
  • Shoot! Even the slang definition (which is almost exclusively how it is used nowadays), stupid or foolish, is not true to of this population. Anna and my friends with special needs are neither stupid nor foolish! So again, insult hurled- it’s not true, therefore it doesn’t stick.
  • Plus, as a bonus, I celebrate retardation! I love it, I want more of it in my life and in the lives of those around me!

So, in conclusion (if you’ve made it this far) though I get the sentiment behind the whole #spreadthewordtoendtheword movement, I feel moreso like we simply need to take the word back- to reclaim it’s original meaning. Back in 2000 when I directed the group home, the ‘proper’ wording had moved from mental/physical “retardation” (which had been in use for years at that point) to mental/physical “handicapped”- nowadays even “handicapped” has started to denote a negative connotation and I see the movement towards mental/physical “disabled” or “special needs” being more ‘appropriate’. How long will it be before those are blacklisted as well? 5 years? 10 years? Will those who adore these populations (that society just loves to stamp labels on) continue to give away ground in the name of incorrectly syntaxed words- just so not to be offensive? How about we go to war with “stupid” or “idiot” instead? At least those words are spoken maliciously hurtful in a subjective, unmeasurable, and purposeful way. Yet, I fear that even having such a movement as the one this last Wednesday has given more power and credence to an otherwise purely under-educated group of bullies who obviously failed English 101. Why not correct their incorrect meaning and use it as an educational moment to celebrate retardation instead? Knowledge is power and education will always be key in integrating these amazing people better into the folds of society- all us ‘normal’ people could certainly learn a thing or two from them being around more.

I do not say “retarded” around people much, simply because there is no reason to use it. I know Anna is retarded, I know many of my friends are. It’s not something that needs discussion. And because society has overtaken the meaning, I don’t use it often because I don’t want to inadvertently hurt anyone’s feelings. This article, in fact, is not meant to necessarily change anyone’s mind about using the word (or not using it), this is simply a different take on the debate. But those of you who read this, know that when I do use ”retarded” it is in celebration, in respect, in honor, and in awe of such a gift they possess that I do not.

 

I don’t hope to reverse the trend into eventual dictionarial (is that even a word?) oblivion that this word will probably eventually find itself; I think the movement is too far gone for that. It’s just too bad that we are losing an innocent, objective, and useful word to describe many, many things all around us. I fear this whole concept is dying a slow and unneeded societal death.

 Anna is slow, she is delayed, her development is held back… she is very much retarded. God made her exactly right, exactly according to His plan. She. is. perfect!

I will never, ever be afraid or offended of Anna being retarded.

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