116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
By Paul Nemeth
Growing up, I was taught to never use slurs. However, one slur sneaked past many parents' and teachers' radar. In fact, I heard this slur almost everywhere I went.
“Retard” is so pervasive in society, it's become a part of everyday speech, but many don't realize words such as “retard” and “retarded” are offensive to others.
Below are some arguments people have used defending the “R” words, followed by my responses.
“It's OK. It's a medical term.” “Mental retardation” used to be the medical term, but because of the growing stigma, it's no longer considered appropriate by many medical, political and government organizations. It's being replaced with “intellectual disability.”
“It's just a word.” It's not just a word. “Retard” has impacted millions of people. It has a history of intolerance, discrimination and disrespect. Derogatory terms for African-Americans, homosexuals, Muslims, etc., are not just words; they carry a history of oppression and discrimination. Many times those words have been associated with discriminatory and violent acts.
It's more than a word - it's an attitude. Thoughts become words. Words can become action.
“I didn't mean it that way.” Discrimination isn't determined by intent, but rather its impact on a person or group of people. You may intend the word to mean something else, but you can't control how people interpret and draw associations from it. People associate words with their experience of how they've been used in the past. If I used the derogatory term for a gay man but gave it a different meaning, people would still associate it with its previous meaning. As a gay man, hearing that term brings up memories of intolerance and hatred. Whether you mean to or not, using a word that refers to a group of people negatively sends a message that belonging to that group is shameful.
“I only use it around my friends.” We construct many of our attitudes through family and friends. When you say “retard” around friends, you vocalize a negative attitude about a group of people and reinforce a negative message. Your friends may feel pressured to use the word as well to fit in.
“People with intellectual disabilities aren't discriminated against.” A student at a Marion school told me she's seen students invite a student with an intellectual disability to their table so they could make fun of him.
“People are just being overly sensitive.” Have you ever been discriminated against?
If yes - why put somebody else through a hurtful situation?
If no - who are you to decide what is overly sensitive? When somebody is targeted because of who he/she is, there are emotional and psychological effects.
If a word is used in association with a demeaning act of discrimination, it can bring up emotional pain upon hearing it again. It doesn't just affect the targeted person - loved ones of the person can also be hurt. Derogatory words affect everyone differently. It's no one's place to say someone is overly sensitive because of a strong emotional response to a word.
“I have the right to freedom of speech.” So does everybody. Just as you have the right to use hurtful speech, I have the right to speak out against it. People can spew whatever hateful speech they want, because it's their right to be ignorant, but the rest of us have a right to not put up with it.
Paul Nemeth, an AmeriCorps VISTA Associate, is Community and Educational Outreach Coordinator with the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission. Comments: email@example.com.