Palumbo and Shriver: Spread the word to end the word

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.


  • Wish it weren’t so

    I wish we could create a society in which everyone was sensitive to everyone else’s feelings. And we have gone a long way, as the work of the late Mrs. Shriver, especially The Special Olympics, symbolizes.

    Unfortunately Nature seems to have other ideas. A pecking-order seems somehow embedded in very “substance” of both human nature and the Natural world.

    Unlike the Natural world, humans can raise their consciousness and CHOOSE to be kind and considerate. We did that with the gender inclusive pronouns issue (his/her s/he, etc.) two decades ago.

    But will the result be like the proverbial bubble in a tire tube? Push the bubble in and make it smooth ib one place and it pops out somewhere else?
    I wish it weren’t so.


  • BR’10

    This is silly. There will never be a way in which individuals of low intelligence are valued as highly as those who have at least normal intelligence.

    If it’s not retard, it will be something else. I’m not saying one should be purposefully mean; but I for one am glad I live in a society where intelligence is valued. A society where low intelligence is not an insult is saddening.

  • Brrrr!

    #2–On the slippery slope to eugenics, are we?
    “There will never be a way in which individuals of low intelligence are valued as highly as those who have at least normal intelligence”
    What a cold statement. I agree with your claim insomuch as it is likely that society will always “value” those who are smarter. However, even though society may not value developmentally disabled individuals, we can certainly respect them and at least pay lip service to this effect. It really doesn’t cost much to not use the word “retard.” For you to begrudge eschewing that little word is callous. I’m sure if there were some epithet that applied to you, you’d see the point of this. You cry “Censorship”? I reply, ”
    Basic manners.”
    #1–Your sentence says it all:
    Unlike the Natural world, humans can raise their consciousness and CHOOSE to be kind and considerate.
    So why not go with this? Sure, the “bubble” may pop out somewhere else, as you put it. People will always find unique ways to be offensive. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As an analogy, politics will always be corrupt. For every case is revealed and/or prosecuted, another case will surely open up and require resources. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to foil corruption.

  • Different BR ’10

    “A society where low intelligence is not an insult is saddening. ”

    I think a society where people with mental or physical disabilities are treated with disrespect is much more saddening.

  • y10

    @2: You are absurd. Living in a society in which intelligence is valued does not mean that society should insult those whose mental and/or physical capacities are physiologically stunted. Seriously ridiculous.

  • anonymous

    Although I understand the pain associated with the abuse of the word retard, I equally resist the urge to normalize what is not normal.
    When you call a black person “n…”, it’s clear why this is a slur: you are evaluating somebody just because of the color of his skin, you are essentializing a marginal characteristic.
    And although I understand that people with mental disabilities are also persons, regardless of their intellectual incapacity, there is a fundamental difference between being black and being retarded. There is nothing wrong with being black. On the other hand, there is something wrong with people who are retarded. They are not just “different” or “special” or a “minority”. Now, that doesn’t mean we should tease them, terrorize them, make them feel uncomfortable, etc. They certainly do have dignity. On the other hand, I refuse the discourse which tries to persuade me that having an IQ of 65 is just being “special”. It’s not. It’s really unfortunate.

  • BR’10

    I’m not advocating that you go kick your nearest mentally disabled people or mock them.

    But I don’t see a meaningful way were being a ‘retard’ or ‘stupid’ or any of these concepts aren’t insulting to individuals who don’t think of themselves within this category.

    There is always going to be a slur word to describe those of low intelligence and most people won’t like being described as such. This is why I don’t see why fighting against ‘retard’ is worth doing. The next word will be as bad.

  • There but for the grace of . . .

    There is an old fashioned adage never heard any more: There but for the Grace of God go I.

    I suppose it has been abandoned since it implies that those outside God’s grace are the physically and mentally challenged, itself an insulting form of
    theological elitism (the “chosen” v. the “unchosen”.

    Perhaps this adage could be more modernly expressed as “There but for the grace of genetics go I.”

    This is a very confusing world now that we don’t have a deity to blame for everything, both good and bad.


  • jf

    In paragraph 7, the authors start out by asserting that “retarded” means what it actually means, and shift to asserting that it means “worthless.” This is sneaky on the part of the authors because while we probably all agree that it’s not okay to think that retarded people are morally inferior or are not fully human, it’s also impossible to deny that retarded people are less intelligent. So using “retarded” to mean “worthless” should be impermissible, but using “retarded” to mean “stupid”…should at least be up for discussion? It’s actually a pretty interesting question, but the authors don’t ever address it.

  • The Hyperbole King Himself

    Isn’t part of the issue recognizing hyperbole? “That’s so Republican” doesn’t mean an actual political party.