Something I’ve noticed in the last couple of decades is that a significant number of my colleagues at different workplaces play pretty free and loose with the terms retarded and retard as blanket derisive adjectives for something or someone that they find to be profoundly stupid.
The number of people I’ve encountered at all levels of organizations who fling the terms around without batting an eye is pretty remarkable. And of course, folks like Jon Stewart have their own fun with it as well.
Whenever somebody drops the r-bomb around me, I look at them to see whether there’s any hint of self-consciousness and I have yet to see it.
So here’s the reveal: I have a 36-year-old brother-in-law with Down’s Syndrome. He’s gone his entire life suffering the indignities of the term retard, mostly from people who weren’t really fit to serve him coffee. My brother-in-law is technically classified as “mentally retarded”. His intellectual skills are impaired by his genetics. Like many people with intellectual disabilities, he goes about his life pretty much like anyone else. He has a job, he volunteers his time at the local library, he likes hockey and baseball and wrestling, and can play piano. Not bad for a retard, I guess.
But I just know that every time he’s within earshot somebody who’s complaining that something’s retarded, it stings.
What I wonder about is why this group of people, a particularly vulnerable group, have been denied the common courtesy that many other marginalized or disenfranchised groups have been granted.
Some folks will pull up the “literal meaning” of retarded as an excuse. As long as they feel that they’re using the term in its proper English context, then that’s fine. But most of the time the term is used as a double-entendre. I’d wager that if you tried to replace the word “slow” with the word “retarded” in a normal conversation, you’d be hard pressed not to get at least one snicker, sideglance, or raised eyebrow from your audience.
So, by extension, I wince every time I hear it. I think about all the people like my brother-in-law for whom these words carry such hurtful connotations, and I wonder whether it’s worth lecturing the people who say it. I’ve decided to start with this passive lecture. If you’ve stumbled here because you work with me, now you’ve been lectured.
— addendum —
So based on my first comment from a work colleague, I feel like my lecture has been taken as a pointed statement. I’m not out to make people feel bad, but if I do make people ask why this particular word is ok when other disparaging epithets are not, then I guess I’m accomplishing my task.