Today, thousands of college students on hundreds of campuses, joined by students of all ages, are trying to jog the consciousness of a nation. We are sensitizing Americans to a subtle but pernicious prejudice reflected in our language — in the common use of the slur “retard.” Everyone can join this human rights movement. It’s as simple as changing the way we speak.
But are we fighting something that even exists? We say yes.
We come to this movement from different backgrounds. Tim grew up coaching in Special Olympics, while Soeren grew up with his younger sister Olivia, who has an intellectual disability. We’ve both witnessed the pain this slur causes.
Recently, Soeren took Olivia shopping. With a slew of children’s books under her arm, Olivia bounded down an aisle, her brother in tow. As she pointed at something that caught her interest, her laugh nearly drowned out a taunting voice from behind: “Who let the retard in? Look guys, I can run like the retard!” The boy and his posse ran by, pointing. She did not turn around. Nor did her brother; Olivia’s intellectual disability has attracted negative attention for years.
Retard, like other slurs, does more than hurt feelings. These words crystallize discrimination and encapsulate marginalizing stereotypes. When used pejoratively against people with intellectual disabilities, “retard” does what ni—-, ki– or fa—- do when used against other minorities. Society has made slurs like these reprehensible. So it should be with “retard.” Olivia, her friends, her family and all those with intellectual disabilities deserve as much.
But the word often appears in a subtler and, ultimately, more dangerous form. We’ve all heard it before: A sports fan disparages an official, “Ref, are you a retard!?” A comedian accuses a celebrity of being “retarded.” A politician refers to his colleagues as “f—ing retarded.”
In these examples, “retard[ed]” seems to mean something close to “stupid,” “incapable” or “undesirable.” And it seems like harmless fun. After all, if no one like Olivia is being made fun of, what’s the problem? Here’s the problem. Through the use of “mental retardation” as a diagnostic term, “retard[ed]” became inextricably tied to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. When “retard[ed]” is used, these people are invoked by this connection. When society warps “retard[ed]” to mean something close to “worthless,” or “undesirable,” it bleeds into the image of those with intellectual disabilities. They then are associated with this negativity.
The bigotry is subtle but very real. Every pejorative use of the slur “retard(ed)” reinforces the stereotype of worthlessness. Olivia is neither incapable nor undesirable. She is an incredible person with a wealth to contribute to the world. Unfortunately, she lives in a society that, through its language, demonstrates and perpetuates its belief to the contrary. The words we use blind us to the abilities and worth of people with intellectual disabilities, ultimately robbing us of the invaluable contribution they offer.
Is this not enough for us to reconsider our language?
Today, March 3, 2010, thousands of students are rallying their peers to challenge their language and pledge to end their pejorative use of the “r-word.” Our intentions are not to ban a word or censor society but rather to awaken others to the harmful effects of this label.
Yet we ask for more than a single day of activism and a pledge. As many critics have pointed out, language is dynamic; if “retard” fades away, new words will rise as replacements. For this reason, our movement calls for a change of not only our language but also our actions and attitudes. We must go beyond words and embrace those oft-ignored members of society whose talents and personalities go forgotten and neglected. Volunteer for Special Olympics or Best Buddies, support legislation that promotes access to health care and education and encourage employers to hire those with intellectual disabilities.
By recognizing these people as valuable citizens, we chip away at the wall of intolerance and exclusion that has plagued our society for too long. The first step is to change society’s language. Today, we challenge you to change yours. Take your pledge to end this word.
Change the conversation. Spread the word to end the “r-word.”
Soeren Palumbo is a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Tim Shriver is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. They are the co-founders of Spread the Word to End the Word.