I have been mulling over this post for probably a couple of years now. Being tied closely to other special needs families via the internet and social networking sites, I often see blog posts and articles on this subject. Last night I came across another which got me thinking about it once again.
Mental retardation is a clinical term. It was developed to classify individuals with cognitive deficits, historically those with an IQ below 70. Basically, it describes those born with intellectual and developmental disabilities which may or may not be related to a syndrome.
I have always felt that when I did finally post about this topic I would need to be completely forthcoming and admit that prior to the birth of my daughter I, too, had used the term "retarded" in a non-clinical, derogatory manner. I believe there are only two reasons why someone would use the word: 1) they are ignorant about how and why it is hurtful or 2) they are flippant and don't care that it is hurtful.
I fell into the first category. I didn't know any better. I didn't understand why it was wrong to say it. I had never thought about it. I never had a reason to think about it. Then I became pregnant with Ella, and by no fault of her own, she was born with intellectual and physical disabilities. She was what could be clinically described as "mentally retarded". Even though I KNOW it is a legitimate, clinical term, it still hurts me to write that. Why? Because of the stigma associated with the word. Because it's still used so freely and flippantly by so many as an insult to describe something that is dumb, stupid or not worthy. My daughter is the opposite of those things. Her name is not interchangeable with the common perception of the definition of the word "retarded".
I believe a major part of the struggle special needs parents go through, especially in the beginning when they find out their child will be different, is not only grief over the loss of the expectations they had for a typical child, but also grief and worry over how the world will view and treat their child because they are different. We all know that the world can be a cruel place, especially if you possess noticeable differences from what is considered to be the norm or the perfection society makes us believe we should strive for. We see how much more prevalent this behavior is among children and teens, but as we grow into adults it becomes less socially acceptable to treat people this way. We come to know better, probably because we all experienced ridicule at some point growing up and know how awful it feels.
But when it comes to people with disabilities, it is still too socially acceptable to use disrespectful language, and essentially make fun of them, even among adults. Is it because most people have never had a personal relationship with someone who is disabled? It has to be. Because if you have ever known or loved someone who is, you would understand how hurtful it is to hear it. If it's not okay to make fun of people who CAN defend themselves, how is it okay to make fun of people who don't even have the ability to stand up for themselves?
Just like the "N" word, the "R" word has clearly become a pejorative in our society. So why would people purposefully continue to use language that they know is hurtful? Freedom of speech doesn't include hate speech. Originally, freedom of speech was a right given to speak up against the government, to protect and advocate for ourselves. It doesn't imply the right to use dangerous and hurtful language. Just as libel and slander are not allowed to defame someone's character, neither should language that disrespects a population of people who are mostly denied the right to free speech themselves simply due to their disabilities.
People with disabilities were born that way. The same as I happened to be born with brown eyes, it wasn't a choice and it can't be changed. Nor should it. But what can be changed is the way these individuals are viewed and often disrespected in our society - a large part of which is tied to the acceptance and derogatory use of the "R" word.