Why ‘retarded’ deserves to be retired

A worker clears snow from the plaza at the Supreme Court in Washington on March 3 as those waiting to hear oral arguments line up.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Michael McGough’s March 4 blog post, “Is ‘retarded’ really worse than ‘mentally disabled’?” gives the impression that Americans ought to turn back the clock on decades of progress in how they think about -- and treat -- people with disabilities.

Criticizing recent media coverage of a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Florida death row inmate, McGough laments how many writers avoid the use of the term “mentally retarded” to describe people with intellectual disabilities. In McGough’s view, this change reflects “the wishes of advocacy groups” seeking a shift away from language that has been codified as insulting over the years. “Language evolves, and sometimes words that are neutral in their meaning acquire pejorative connotations,” he writes. “All the same, I’ve always been puzzled about why ‘mentally disabled’ is preferable to ‘retarded.’”

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Let’s solve this puzzle together. For starters, the word “retarded” is a lazy, imprecise way to describe, let alone diagnose, another human being. What people with disabilities are striving for is a society that seeks to understand their limitations -- and their abilities. The term “mentally retarded” and its various shorthands betray a sort of willful ignorance. Like the cruder diagnostic standards of yesteryear -- such as “idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile” or “feebleminded” -- the term “retarded” dehumanizes people with disabilities, opening the door to bigotry and cruelty.

Language like “a person with an intellectual disability” is by no means perfect, but it puts people first and disability second. It also captures a wider range of the human experience of those living with disabilities, from a child with Down’s syndrome to an elderly Alzheimer’s patient to a veteran with traumatic brain injury. A person with an intellectual disability is part of a broader community of people with sensory or physical disabilities, and in the face of persistent social stigma and isolation, there is comfort and strength in solidarity.

If it seems like people with disabilities and their advocates are sensitive to these linguistic choices, it’s because these terms have real-life consequences. For many people with disabilities and their families, a diagnostic label is the single most important factor in determining eligibility for services and benefits. When McGough characterizes the word “retarded” as simply “the victim of the schoolyard insult,” he diminishes the everyday struggles that people with disabilities face throughout their adult lives.

Yet even in the schoolyard, McGough is off base. “The kid who would have called his friend a ‘retard’ 30 years ago now mocks him as ‘mentally disabled’ or ‘special,’” he writes.

Yes, language evolves, and today’s euphemism might be tomorrow’s epithet. For all we know, someday the most odious insult might be to call someone a McGough. But kids grow up, and many of those who thought it was OK to call someone a “retard” on the playground 30 years ago are now adults who use the insult, or write it into films, or turn a blind eye when their own kids use the word. Seeking a new word to describe people with intellectual disabilities isn’t about policing the schoolyard, it’s about finding language that can help children and adults alike treat each other with greater empathy.

Words lead to action, and while trading one word for another won’t change reality overnight, it can help usher in an new era. Consider the early 20th century, when the American Breeders Assn. studied how best to cut off the “defective germ-plasm” of the U.S. population. Consider the later 20th century when the “mentally retarded” were kept out of sight and mind in nightmarish institutions like the Willowbrook State School. In the 21st century, thousands of Americans with “intellectual disabilities” are organizing politically for the first time, finding their voices and advocating for their right to dignity and respect, including freedom from language that has tormented them for years.

Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the ACLU, helps put this into historical context during an interview with me last week: “One of the most important principles around any civil rights movement is the right to claim our own language.” Claiming your own language is not an event, but a process. Even now, many disabled individuals eschew the word “disabled” in favor of new words -- or no words at all -- to capture the complexity of their experience. That’s progress.

Rather than trying to rehabilitate “‘retarded’ as a neutral description of low intelligence,” as McGough suggests, we ought to embrace the challenge of expanding our vocabulary, even if it takes some of us longer than others.


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Chris Feliciano Arnold is a recipient of a 2014 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. He has written essays and journalism for the Atlantic, Salon, the Millions, the Rumpus and Los Angeles Review of Books.