Our culture is finally starting to clue in: "retarded" is increasingly off-limits as a casual pejorative. This mindset shift is the result of activism like The R-Word campaign, and as evidenced by last week's epsiode of Glee, it's taking hold. As I wrote for BlogHer:
The word "retarded" was never mentioned once, not even with regards to Becky [who has Down syndrome], even though Glee's writers sub-specialize in creative taunting. I don't know if the writers sidestepped the term because of anti-r-word activism or because it is increasingly simply not done, but it was noticeably absent. Let's hope this omission represents a cultural trend on the upswing.
This is not to say it's not used. But it's also increasingly not tolerated. My friend Emily recently came across a website called "Retarded in Love," and was not alone in letting the blogger know she didn't appreciate her use of the term:
It would be thoughtful of you to change the title of your blog…yes, this probably comes across as uptight oldness or just plain uptight, but people who actually are labeled as retarded cannot defend themselves when someone uses this term for amusement. While the word itself should not be used as a label, it is still, and we all know exactly what it means. It’s painful to people who love someone who is intellectually disabled to see a word like this used for humor by someone who is patently not intellectually disabled. If you must use a term that refers to cognitive deficiency as a result of being overwhelmed by love or made a fool of by love, I suggest “Stupid, ” as in “Stupid in Love.” God knows that’s enough of a norm to avoid being offensive.
Are there circumstances where using the r-word is acceptable? Parents and advocates in the disability and special needs communities have been known to take advantage of its shock value, to effect change, precisely because it's now taboo. In the new collection My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities (in which Jennyalice and I both have stories, which I had to read slowly because almost every story made me cry with knowing, helpless rage, and which you should distribute widely as a holiday gift), Chloe Eudaly describes the desperation that drove her to use the word on her son Henry's transition team -- they wanted to put her previously happily included son in an inappropriate placement: a segregated special ed classroom (you know, like Leo's):
...sensing impending defeat, I dropped the R-bomb ... I pointed out that the best way to learn a language or skill was immersion, and what the self-contained classroom was but retarded immersion?Or, as another Short Bus author Amber Taylor wrote about her son Brave, who has Down syndrome:
We would get an array of questions and comments along the lines of "When are you going to institutionalize him" and ... "Why isn't he walking yet?" To which I would reply, in my most June Cleaver sort of voice, "Because he's retarded, you ass!" I blurt it out in that way because when a person is being a jerk, and I say "special" or "has needs," "Down syndrome," et cetera, it doesn't seem to sink in. When I blurt out "he's retarded," they get all red-faced and embarrassed, and I enjoy their discomfort.
And finally, there are those who, like The Pioneer Woman, have spent their lives loving someone with cognitive or developmental challenges, and use the word in a purely descriptive fashion. While I wish PW would update her terminology, as I said in that same Glee post:
...I know that The Pioneer Woman uses the word 'retarded,' but her affectionate descriptions of [her brother] Mike -- as just another complicated person who happens to have developmental challenges -- temper her non-malicious use of an outdated label.The r-word is still around, but it's on its way out. You can help extinguish negative r-word behavior, by politely pointing out its inappropriateness while anticipating some defensiveness. I know you're all strong good smart people with nice thick skin, who understand how important it is to stand up for people like Leo who can't defend themselves. My thanks, in advance.