My younger brother was diagnosed with moderate autism at the age of 3. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years since then, it’s that you walk through life with a radically different perspective toward the world when you grow up with a special-needs family member.
You learn never to change the channels on the TV without asking, and then to double (and triple) check. You learn to bring an iPod to every restaurant/party/long car drive/high school and college graduation for distractions and never, ever to be figurative—because everything you say will be taken literally. You also learn the power of words in a way you’d never even thought about before.
Last week, while live-tweeting during the third and final presidential debate, conservative commentator Ann Coulter wrote, referring to Mitt Romeny’s passive demeanor towards President Obama: “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.” Coulter’s tweet was met with bipartisan outrage, drawing social media ire from both sides of the political aisle for its insensitivity. She immediately received an outpouring of responses admonishing her choice of words, chastising her lack of tact and calling for an apology. Still, less than 24 hours later, Coulter tweeted (again referring to the president), “If he’s ‘the smartest guy in the room’ it must be one retarded room.”
Coulter protested the backlash towards her use of the term in an interview with Alan Colmes on Fox News radio (and then later with Piers Morgan), calling those offended the “word police” and saying: “Oh, screw them! …Look, no one would refer to a Down Syndrome child, someone with an actual mental handicap, by saying ‘retard.’”
But the reality is, that statement couldn’t be further from the truth. I remember the first time someone called my brother retarded. It was the first—and only—time I’ve ever punched someone. Since then, I’ve heard the word tossed at people with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, people with autism and myriad other cognitive and physical disorders. Whatever Ann Coulter’s experience has been, I can assure you: None of the events I’ve witnessed have ever involved the word retard being used in a positive light.
Coulter’s insistence on continually using a word that has been labeled demeaning and offensive shouldn’t come as a shock, considering she’s described herself as a polemicist who “likes to stir up the pot.” But the reality is that Ann Coulter is not the problem. She simply represents a mindset of ignorance that crosses party lines, social status and vocabularies. In 2010, mayor Rahm Emmanuel drew sharp—and deserved—criticism for privately calling a group of politicians “f***ing retarded.” Last week, a close friend who knows and loves my brother told me to stop being a retard. Almost as quickly as the words escaped her lips her eyes darted down and she mumbled, “sorry.”
Over the years I’ve learned to control my fists, but I’ve watched as the word retarded has become more and more commonplace on the tongues of those around me—good, loving, kind people who know my brother, know me and can’t help but use a word that has become so natural to their vocabulary. A friend who is acting silly is being a retard; a pop quiz is retarded.
Ann Coulter went on in her interview to insist that “retard has been used colloquially to just mean ‘loser’ for 30 years.” And you know what? She’s absolutely right. It has.
But let’s stop.
Let’s stop associating mental handicap with being a loser, or being stupid. My brother struggles to process certain types of stimuli and information. But if I could have half the memory and and ability to retain information he has, I’d consider myself blessed beyond measure.
Coulter is right in noting that the word’s etymology has evolved over the past 30 years. So much so that in many states, legislation is being passed to remove “mental retardation” from medical and clinical terminology because it has perverted so drastically into a slur. And its connotation remains. However you spin it, when not being used medically, the word retard is almost always used as an insult to imply stupidity or ineptitude.
One of the reasons the word is so offensive is because it marginalizes an entire segment of society that, for the most part, cannot defend themselves from it. (A beautiful exception to this is seen in Special Olympic Athlete John Franklin Stephen’s eloquent response to Coulter’s tweet.) The innocence that so often accompanies special-needs individuals belies a certain type of vulnerability. If you spoke to my brother in the most insulting tone you could muster and, with all the venom in the world, called him a retard, he would probably look at you and ask you what your favorite movie is—and then tell you how much he loves Toy Story, what year it was released, who produced it, etc. The full weight of your attack would be lost on the innocence of his mind. I love that. And at the same time, it infuriates me, because he’s defenseless against one of the most dangerous things in the world: ignorance.
The people who would understand this are the millions of siblings, parents and friends whose daily reality is living with, caring for and loving people with special needs. Living with special needs is a daily reality for too many people for the word retard to be thrown around cavalierly. It’s easy to assume that your words and thoughts are insignificant, but the full danger of words that become easier and easier to throw around is that they normalize the belittling of people and ideas. As Christians, we have a biblical call to care for the least of these that Christ laid out clearly in Matthew 25:40. Fulfilling that command begins with adopting an attitude of respect. It begins with not using uniquely and beautifully crafted minds as source material for insults and slurs. It begins with looking at each person’s gifts and talents and elevating them, rather than shining the spotlight on their inabilities and exploiting them for comedic gain.
So stop using this word. Call out your friends when they do. And remember that your words have power because they matter—however insignificant you might believe them to be.
Heather is a writer, editor, Nutella connoisseur and Seattle transplant by way of Great Britain and Orlando. Follow her on Twitter @hdcroteau.