Sticks, Stones and Stigma…Use of the Derogatory Term “Retard”

This is the title of an article in the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities a Journal of Policy, Practices and Perspectives from the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). The article is from April 2010 and I found it thumbing through the stack of publications that Cindi Kirchmeier makes available to staff.

The title stuck me because I had just reprimanded my 16 year old son for using the term and he looked at me like I was crazy. Chase, his close friend and neighbor buddy was standing with him with a most confused look on his face as I explained my position. Chase just couldn’t comprehend what I was talking about. But then again I was talking to my son and not him so maybe he thought this wasn’t his lecture. This incident followed a family event where my 28 year old son also used the term indiscriminately. I resolved to be consistent in my harangue about the use of the term and how it offends me since I work so closely with those of intellectual disability. The study cited in the AAIDD was conducted through a survey of 1,169 youth drawn from the Harris Poll Online Youth Panel. The study was conducted and written by Gary N. Siperstein, Sarah E. Pociask, and Melissa A. Collins and written in volume 48, number 2 of the Journal.

The study showed a high prevalence of the r-word use since “92% of youth had heard someone use the word as a slang invective.” The researchers explained that even though the use of such terms (ie. Idiot, feebleminded, moron to mental retardation) began with good intentions it wasn’t not long before derivatives started being used as insults. The team explained slang from a linguistic perspective and how language evolves such that clinical terms and words associated with a marginalized group often emerge as invectives.

The study found that though hearing the r-word was prevalent (92%) only 36% of students reported hearing it directed toward someone with an intellectual disability. I am reminded of a time when I was supervising a lawn maintenance crew in Ellensburg. A group of kids rode by on their bikes about a half block away and yelled out “Hey look at the retards”. I quickly glanced at my crew. The look on each face is best described as dejected. I felt so badly I apologized. One client said “Well it happens”. But it was clear from the look on his face that he was extremely hurt.

The study was also interested in understanding how youth respond to hearing the r-word. It was discovered they responded differently depending on who the word was directed toward. When it was not directed toward someone with an intellectual disability, youth were more apt to laugh (22%), not care (23%) or do nothing (39%). In contrast, when the word was directed toward someone with an intellectual disability, youth were more inclined to tell the person using the word it was wrong to say (50%) and feel sorry for the person being picked on (63%). I am encouraged that 63% of the kids had empathy but when it is directed at your friends I would hope 100% of kids would speak up.

The article also spoke to the movement to eradicate the word which really begins with the youth. Due to the “high prevalence of the r-word within the youth lexicon, it is important to maintain and support the youth-driven nature of the [eradication] campaign”. And youth need to acknowledge that they use the r-word. Finally the article states “… notwithstanding the paradigmatic shift that has taken place over the past century with regard to the treatment and support of individuals with intellectual disability in society, the stigma associated with intellectual disabilities remains pervasive and as we showed in this study, the derogatory use of the r-word is highly prevalent in the lexicon of youth. Eliminating the r-word is only the first step. The larger and more fundamentally challenging task that we must address as a society is the devaluation and resulting stigmatization of individuals with intellectual disabilities.”

Can we as a society every get to the point where we treat people as people first without labeling or ranking them? Where discrimination is eliminated? Where fear and suspicion are replaced by acceptance and support? Sometimes I get hopeful such as when I see a video about a kid who made an arcade out of cardboard boxes and a reporter rallied people to support him But then I read about something Kim Kardashian did (insignificant in terms of life contribution) or read about Warren Buffet having prostate cancer (one of 250,000 receiving this diagnosis in the US during the year) making the headlines in the business news. I scratch my head and wonder where we are heading as a country.

Let’s hope that we can successfully eliminate use of the r-word. Remember it all starts with awareness. Then we must, each of us, do something!


CEO Viewpoint is published by Jim Larson, CEO Morningside

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