One Part of the Community Expresses
Language Hurts!

Steve Hoad

"send letters to organizations to help them understand that retarded isn't a proper word"…    "it hurts us if you call us retarded"…    "it is Ok to write the word retarded in order to explain to them that it is hurtful."
(Paul Piccard, Augusta)

We have all felt the sting of hurtful words. They stick in our throats if we have to say them and stick in our hearts when we hear them. One particular segment of our communities has been speaking up about the hurt inflicted by one word, "retarded," and their challenges are finding people and organizations who will hear their stories and reasons.

It is a word now used to mean much more than a medical diagnosis — a word that now expresses disdain or stupidity, funny or simpleness. Witness the first ten results from a Google search for the word "retarded"
(web addresses have been deleted)

1. The Arc of the United States
Voluntary organization committed to the welfare of all children and adults with mental retardation and their families. Formerly ARC, Association for ...

2. Retarded Official Website
Website counters. Since 31 Oct 2005.

3. RetardedHumor.com
RetardedHumor.com has hundreds of funny pictures, crazy pictures, hilarious pictures, insane pictures.

4. Children Who Are Mentally Retarded

The term mental retardation is often misunderstood and seen as derogatory. Some think that retardation is diagnosed only on the basis of below–normal ...

5. Retarded Animal Babies
It's everyone's favorite foul mouthed, perveted, cartoon animals!

6. Movie Criticism for the Retarded
Reviews through the eyes of video store clerks. Current articles, archive, and links.

7. Online Games Flash Cartoons, Funny movies, funny pictures, Jokes ...
See my personal collection of hilarious media. Flash Cartoons, Funny Movie, Prank Phone Call, Funny pictures, Hilarious videos!

8. Retarded Fun
NEWCONTENT. Fly your helicopter while avoiding obstacles · The story of how this guy got two hats · Robot Boxing! New superhero... Burnt Face Man ...

9. Retarded Burgerking
Extensive collection of clean humor, funny pictures, movies and flash animation.

10. Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons
Bearing in mind the necessity of assisting mentally retarded persons to develop ... The mentally retarded person has a right to proper medical care and ...

Seven of those first ten web sites found used “retarded” in a demeaning way. And, to top that off, no sponsors were willing to have their ads connected to the word.
For comparison, I searched the word "blind" and found that seven out of ten sites found were related to blindness. The other three did not appear to be derrogatory and many companies and organizations were willing to have their links appear when "blind" was searched.

So let's take a look at how words change. Here, from their web site, is the history of the ARC's name. National Association for Retarded Children 1953–1973

  • National Association for Retarded Citizens 1973–1981

  • Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States 1981–1992

  • The Arc of the United States 1992 –

We can see that The Arc is now just a set of initials thus avoiding having the word "retarded" in their name. Does it change their mission or function to change their name? Does it make members and friends happier? Or do people still see a r c and think "retarded children",or "retarded citizens"

Recently I spoke with two members of the community about this problem. One, Paul Picard SUFU member, from Augusta, past state board member of Speaking Up for Us told me, "It's a word they've heard so they use it." "When they talk about us, say we're retarded it just puts me down I want to get out of the room." The other person, Maryann Preble from Augusta who is co–chair of the Speaking Up for Us State board says, "We talked among the state officers Of SUFU about this. They didn't feel like they were retarded."

And when I asked her what the word means to her she said, "retarded means, can't do anything that regular folks do, can't speak well like others, can only sit there and not say anything — dumb, stupid." … “I’m nobody, can’t do everything the other people can”

Paul expressed similar feelings about what the word means. He talked about seeing it on pins and hearing it from toys connected with a movie, "Napoleon Dynamite," released by Foxx last fall. (Foxx apologized and pulled those items.) But Paul was hurt by it and may be hurt again because the word is not going away.

From a media guide written and available on the web, opinions may differ on some terms, the guidelines represent the current consensus among disability organizations. Portions of the guidelines have been adopted into the "Associated Press Stylebook," a basic reference for professional journalists. …"DO NOT USE GENERIC LABELS for disability groups, such as "the retarded," "the deaf." Emphasize people not labels. Say "people with mental retardation" or "people who are deaf."… "Despite editorial pressures to be succinct, it is never acceptable to use "crippled," "deformed," "suffers from," "victim of," "the retarded," "the deaf and dumb," etc."… "Mental disability. The Federal Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) lists four categories under mental disability: psychiatric disability retardation, learning disability, or cognitive impairment is acceptable."

And therein lies a problem. Medical terminology, Federal laws concerning education, medical care, supported employment, and general disability issues all use the word "retarded" or "retardation". Many state laws do too. Very recently, with the help of the Developmental Disabilities Council and others, that kind of wording was removed from a bill regarding police training. Little by little things can change.

What do we replace the word "retarded" with when speaking about the condition? Paul Piccard responded, "developmentally disabled" (SUFU officers endorsed those words) … "cognitively disabled is almost the same, and it would be all right." In a very publicly distributed letter on Feb. 14, 2005 we find these words written by Chester Finn, Chair, Self–Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE):

"AAMR needs to stop using the word mental retardation and change their name. SABE worked with the President's Council for People with Intellectual Disabilities to change their name. In the Civil Rights movement, the "N" word was hurtful to African Americans. Likewise, the "M" word is offensive to individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. SABE challenges AAMR to educate their members in order to change their organization's name."

And later, from a related conference source:

"Washington, D.C. – The 11 Founding Member organizations of The Alliance for Full Participation, LLC (AFP) today released their collective statement of action following the historic "Many Voices, One Vision" national Summit held in Washington, D.C. September 22-23, 2005." … "Terminology – AFP and in particular self–advocates who are part of AFP believe that the term "mental retardation" has become hurtful. In order to achieve a life of respect and dignity as they truly deserve, people with disabilities need to be called by their name, and not by demeaning labels."

In a paper on the Arc web site, the subject is introduced.

"Many people dislike the term "mental retardation" because they see it as a slur. In response, some members of The Arc would like the organization to change from an organization on mental retardation to an organization on developmental disabilities. Those who support such a change believe that to improve opportunities for people we need to use a term that does not have the stigma associated with it that "mental retardation" does.

This change might seem to be minor, but it has many major implications. This paper addresses in particular how it would affect The Arc's efforts in federal public policy issues. Key questions are:

Would the well–recognized voice of The Arc –– the only parent–based organization that has devoted itself for 50 years solely to the interests of people with mental retardation and their families –– be lost?

Would The Arc no longer advocate for people with mental retardation who do not meet the qualifications for the federal definition of developmental disabilities (76% of people with mental retardation)?

Would the change in terminology require Congress to change the numerous laws that use mental retardation to establish eligibility for services and benefits?

Would The Arc attempt to expand the federal definition of developmental disabilities to include mild mental retardation? How successful would this be given that the federal government is currently trying to limit the number of people with disabilities who qualify for government programs? How much time and effort would such efforts require? Would it divert attention from other critical public policy issues?

Would there be resentment from other national organizations that already exist to represent people with developmental disabilities (i.e., United Cerebral Palsy Association, Autism Society, Learning Disabilities Association, Epilepsy Foundation, Spina Bifida Association, National Mental Health Association, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Cystic Fibrosis Association, etc.)? What would this mean to the movement?

Would there be resentment from people with developmental disabilities who have not asked The Arc to become their advocate?

Would changing to a different term take away the stigma?

Would changing to a different term change society's attitude about people with mental retardation?

Are there other ways to remove the "stigma?"

As the paper goes on, it defines terms in medical and educational frameworks and tries to answer some of the questions posed above. It speaks of the work it would take to change focus, change Federal and state language, and change organizational practices and cultures. It then concludes; "It is clear from history that having the label of mental retardation left people open to some very unpleasant experiences. They had property taken from them, were locked in institutions, used as research subjects, segregated, neglected, abused and denied even the right to attend school." Is it any wonder there was a stigma?

People with mental retardation were among the first of those murdered by the Nazis. These murders were caused by a societal attitude that people with mental retardation were worthless and took food and resources away from more productive members of society. In fact, stigma stems from wrong attitudes and beliefs on the part of society. If the stigma is ever to go away, it will only happen when society's underlying attitudes are changed. Would The Arc's resources be better spent on efforts to change society's attitudes rather than on thinking up new terms that will soon have the same stigma as the old terminology? It is interesting to note that people who are deaf don't use "people first" language because they feel proud to be part of the "deaf community". Many people with physical disabilities are also less exorcised about "people first" language than people with cognitive disabilities. In fact, many of the more radical people with physical disabilities call themselves names like "crips" and use it proudly. Judy Heuman, Assistant Secretary of the federal Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), has a disability and refuses to use people first language because of her "disability pride."

What would happen if The Arc put major resources into a public relations campaign rather than into changing terminology? Would our efforts be better spent on educating the public that having mental retardation is nothing to be ashamed of rather than on trying to find another term that will probably over time develop the same stigma? What would happen, for example, if The Arc declared a national Mental Retardation Pride Day? The Arc should explore this possibility with self–advocates.

Both Paul and Maryann are self advocates. They participated in the Alliance for Full Participation conference and discussed this issue of "terminology". They do not want to be called retarded.

When asked what happens if someone says the word because that's what they know Paul says, "some of them don't know any better, can't blame them, they didn't know. Second meeting they treat you just like a normal person. "And what should people say that will help the hurt? "I apologize I wanted to use another word,". Maryann agrees that education about the word is important because "we can do the same things as people that don't have disabilities, it just "takes a little longer to get the words out" and "time to learn how to do new things."

But then, there are those individuals who haven't learned or want to hurt! Paul says, "sometimes they don't want to apologize and they just keep on talking — they want to make fun of us."

Information sources:

Google searching "retarded"

Google searching "blind"

History of the Name and logo of the Arc


The Alliance for Full Participation To obtain the full text of AFP's "Agenda for Full Participation in America," please visit http://www.allianceforfullparticipation.org
or contact Jim Carroll at 410–203–1970.

Chester Finn's letter

Mental Retardation v. Developmental Disabilities: Should The Arc change its focus from serving people mental retardation to serving people with all developmental disabilities?



© 2006 Resources for Organizing and Social Change