Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
Let’s start by looking at various definitions of the word, so we know what we’re talking about. “Retard” can be used as a verb, when it means “to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.” It can also be used as an adjective, when it means “characterized by retardation,” which in turns means “slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding and awareness, emotional development, academic progress, etc.” Finally, it can be used as a noun, when it means “a mentally retarded person.” The word is disparaging and problematic primarily when used as an adjective or noun, so I’m not concerned with people who say things like “embalming mummies was a method of retarding decomposition over time.” Similarly, I’m not concerned with phrases like “fire-retardant pajamas.” I am, though, significantly concerned with people who use the term as a noun or adjective meant to disparage and insult a person, idea, or argument.
Etymologically, the word traces back to Latin roots retardationem, and retardare, meaning “to make slow, delay, keep back, hinder.” It’s the same root as “tardy,” meaning late. This first recorded instance of using the word to mean mentally slow didn’t occur until 1895, and use of the word as a disparaging insult didn’t occur until much later, one source saying the 1960s, another citing a book from the late 1950s where a character discussing Playboy magazine said “that Hefner jazz is for retarded jockstraps.” In either event, it’s a relatively recent development that the word is used to attack and disparage others. Coincidentally (or is it?), it was around the 1950s or 60s that the American medical profession began referring to the psychological condition as ‘mental retardation.’ Before then, the condition had been termed ‘mental deficiency,’ ‘feeble mindedness,’ or simply ‘idiocy.’
In current psychiatric practice, the term “mental retardation” is a medical definition, outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM). (Sorry I can’t link to this – am referring to my own copy. To my knowledge it’s not available in whole online.) The diagnosis requires an IQ score, but that is not the sole factor — it must be accompanied by significant limitations in adaptive functioning in the areas of communication, self-care, home living, social or interpersonal skills, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, leisure, health, and/or safety. Additionally, the onset must be before age 18. The DSM notes that individuals with mental retardation usually present with impairments in adaptive functioning – difficulty coping with the normal demands of life or meeting the standards of personal independence expected of someone in their particular age group and sociocultural background. An individual’s IQ score determines with which of the four subtypes of the disorder an individual will be diagnosed: mild (55-70), moderate (35-50), severe (20-35) and profound (below 20). About 85% of individuals diagnosed with the disorder are in the “mild” category. Importantly, the DSM notes that “no specific personality and behavioral features are uniquely associated with mental retardation.”
This medical definition is certainly not what’s intended in contemporary uses of the word. If I say “I saw Zombieland and it was totally retarded,” I am not saying that I think the movie had a low IQ and I observed significant limitations in adaptive functioning. (That doesn’t even make sense.) I am saying that I thought the movie was bad, uninteresting, boring, nonsensical, repetitive, and a waste of my time and money. But for me to mean any of those things by using the word “retarded,” I and the person to whom I’m speaking have to share the assumption that being retarded is bad and that people who have mental retardation are stupid, uninteresting, and a waste of my time. Similarly, if I say “LAPD Chief Bratton’s views on homeless policy are retarded,” I mean that they are poorly informed, poorly thought out, and will be ineffective. For me to mean that, the person to whom I’m speaking has to share the assumption that people with mental retardation are poorly informed, think poorly, and will be ineffective.
The term is used so broadly in contemporary conversation that usage is no longer based primarily on assumptions about specific behaviors of people who have mental retardation – just the general assumption that retardation is bad, something to be avoided, and things, ideas or people described as retarded should be excluded from the attention of non-retarded people. At this point, the connotation is simply “that’s bad and you should ignore it.” (See the Urban Dictionary entry for the term, which describes it as meaning “bad” in literally hundreds of different ways.) And that is ableist – using a word that not only describes but is the actual medical diagnosis of a mental disability to mean “bad and ignorable.” Using the term reinforces the implicit assumption that mental disabilities are bad and that people with mental disabilities should be excluded and ignored because of their disabilities. And that affects all people with mental disabilities, not just those diagnosed with mental retardation or another developmental disability. (Although it is especially difficult for family members of people with developmental disabilities.)
In the past year or so, I’ve been making an effort to eliminate this word from my vocabulary. And it’s hard. I hadn’t realized how common a word it is until I started paying attention to it, and then I saw it absolutely everywhere, and heard it come out of my own mouth. (I stop myself, apologize, and substitute another word.) There are movies like Tropic Thunder with whole plotlines about “going full retard.” Blogs use it with regularity. I guarantee that now that you’re aware of the word, you’ll notice it in more places than you ever imagined. You might want to consider reading more about or even supporting organizations trying to increase awareness of the word and encourage people and the media to find other words, such as The R Word Campaign and the My Words Matter Pledge.
Some alternative words: bad, awful, silly, poorly reasoned, dunder-headed, illogical, ineffective, inefficient, uninteresting, etc, etc.