Disability, Sweet Machine

Why I don’t use the word “retarded”

This post is for Blog Against Disablism Day; it’s about my experience as an able-bodied person who has a sibling with disabilities. I also have a cousin with disabilities and a parent with serious progressive cognitive impairment. I’m sure I could write a whole blog’s worth about growing up with my brother, but this is about my experience as an adult. Please check out the other Blog Against Disablism entries listed here. Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2008

My older brother (whom I’ll call M) is disabled. He’s five years older than me and thus has seemed to be both my big brother and, in a sense, my little brother, since the roles of who-cares-for-whom have been uncertain since before I can remember. He lives in a group home in the state where my parents live (one set of them, anyway), and I don’t get back there often, and most of my friends have never been there and thus have never met him. In fact, our own FJ, who has been my BFF since I was 14, has never met him! My networks of loved ones just haven’t crossed enough in that particular region of the country. What is strange about this, for me, is that it means that many of the people I interact with on a daily basis don’t know much about M, or they don’t remember much of what they do know. In general, though I’m on good terms with all my family members, including M, we just don’t have as much everyday interaction as we did when I was a kid. What this means for me is that I don’t have to “deal with” the way people react to M’s disabilities on a daily basis. I can turn off my defenses — or at least I think I can — most days. That’s a privilege that I have because I am able-bodied myself, but it’s a privilege I didn’t always have (or didn’t fully have) when I lived with M.

Usually, if M’s career, lifestyle, or health comes up in conversation, I’ll say straightforwardly that M is disabled and lives in a group home near my parents. I don’t know what people hear when I say this — what do they imagine? Do they picture someone with physical disabilities? Cognitive? Both? When I was growing up, people who hadn’t yet met him *always* asked if M had Down Syndrome; people reach for a label even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. (Though when I was a little kid, I imagine Life Goes On had something to do with it, too.) M’s disabilities have never been diagnosed as something recognizable; he’s got unusual physical features and unusual cognitive impairments. He’s also tremendously social, funny, polite, and complex, even if he can’t always communicate the complexity of his feelings.

What I’m writing towards, slowly and rather fumblingly, is that I “pass” as a person who doesn’t think about disability in my daily life. It’s actually a lot like being a queer/bi person in an opposite-sex relationship, or a thin FA blogger (hello, I’m Sweet Machine, and I’ll be straddling the liminal space between privilege and nonprivilege today!). People say things around me that they would feel (ideally) shame for saying around someone who “looked disabled.” They don’t think twice around me, though. Where this comes out most often (as American readers, at least, can imagine*) is with the word “retarded.” People say this word ALL THE TIME — you may think of it as a playground taunt, but really listen for it for, say, a week, if you don’t already. You will hear adults say it. You will hear all kinds of people whom you’d expect to be attentive to prejudicial language say it. You will hear variations on “tard”: fucktard, wanktard, and so on. You will hear it again and again, and you will hear it in conversations where no one will blink at its use. We’ve heard it here so often that we explicitly mention it in our comments policy. (Once you start to hear that, try listening for other slang phrases or common metaphors that focus on physical disability: lame, crippled, crutch.)

A few days ago, it went differently: I was having a bite to eat with a few friends and we were bitching about a professor and my friend G said “He’s just retarded.” I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I really don’t like it when people use that word like that” — while everyone else just stared at me, shocked, G apologized — and sincerely. In fact, he said, “I know, and I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to eliminate that word from my vocabulary, and I need to try harder.” I told him that I appreciated that, and after a short pause, the conversation went on.

I find this kind of interaction with friends tremendously nerve-wracking. I’m happy to call out strangers (as I’m sure you’ve noticed on this blog!), but it’s really hard to stop a lively conversation in its tracks to express your discomfort with someone’s words. It’s not just that I don’t want to make my friends feel bad — it’s that they’ve made me feel bad and they don’t even know it. And when I say “feel bad,” I don’t mean just a vague “Ooh I wish you hadn’t said that” itchy feeling. In the two seconds it takes someone to call something “retarded,” they’ve conjured up a lifetime of memories for me:

Memories of standing up for M against bullies on the school bus. Memories of being called “retarded” myself as retaliation and someone writing “SPED” in my high school yearbook. Memories of little kids chasing M around the playground and screaming “GET THE RETARD!” and a girl I thought was a friend coming up to me and saying “We’re chasing the retard, c’mon, it’s fun!” Memories of my mom filling out endless paperwork on which she had to write “moderately retarded” again and again.

That’s what happens in a flash in my brain when someone says “That’s retarded” and moves on. By the time I recover my nerve enough to say something, they don’t even remember what they’ve said.

Which is why I was so relieved when G did what he did — he apologized, and he really heard what I was saying. If only we could all respond with that kind of humility when we’re called out on privilege. I couldn’t stop thinking about that interaction, so I wrote him later to let him know:

I just wanted to say thanks for being cool about me calling you out on the “retarded” thing earlier. I really appreciate you taking that seriously and responding as you did. I know that we all work to not use prejudicial language in general, but it can be hard to change our speech patterns and I know some people don’t think it’s a big deal. I’m not sure how many people in the program know/remember that I have a brother who’s mentally disabled, but that fact makes me both more and less likely to speak up when I hear someone use “retarded” that way — more likely because I notice it more, but less likely because it causes a moment of anger/panic/sadness all wrapped into one, which makes it hard to actually vocalize what I’m thinking. It’s taken me over 20 years to be able to train myself to say something to people, but I’m still not that good at doing it, and every time I fail to speak up, I regret it.

Thanks for hearing what I said in the spirit it was given. It really means a lot to me.

I’m going to try to remember this the next time I have that moment of panic and anger. And I’m going to speak up again.

*Is “retarded” used as “generic negative slang word” in other countries, too? I have never heard anything about this either way.

157 thoughts on “Why I don’t use the word “retarded””

  1. my best friend in grade school had an older sister who was Down’s. she was incredibly sweet. she was also so lonely that it hurt to look at her — so people didn’t. when they did, they didn’t like what they saw – her touching herself, for instance, or staring blankly into space. her disability was between moderate and severe. it was hard to have a conversation with her, but harder still to have conversations with people who didn’t realize i knew her – who would criticize her behaviour as being ‘weird’, expecting me to agree or commiserate, without considering that we had a relationship. like your brother, she was older than me, but seemed younger – and it seemed like my duty to protect her.

    my friend went off to private school for grades 9-12 while her sister, like me, stayed in the public school. seemingly immediately, people forgot – or maybe disregarded – the fact that her sister and i had been dear friends. they said shit to me that astonished me, in their cruelty and ignorance. it still stings.

    even worse, i recall my own cowardice. another girl in her class who was not as severely disabled was registering for freshman year at the same time i was. in our small town, we were the only two in the office registering at the time, and neither of us had locker partners. i offered to share with her, because it seemed reasonable and friendly, and we were both new at this school, and i at least was familiar with her through the special ed class. within a month, i was badgered by friends into ‘moving out’ of my locker with her and into another locker with a girl i didn’t know, didn’t particularly have anything in common with, and who i knew to be a bit brooding and dark. but she was ‘normal’, and this was her selling point – people felt i should have a cooler locker partner than ‘the slow girl’.

    the ‘normal’ girl was just as irritating as i’d predicted, and i left her eventually, too, but i never forgave myself for abandoning the Down’s girl i’d offered to be locker partners with, who was so excited to be part of the mainstream crowd that she showed up at every break just to chat with me. and also, i realized years later, to open the combination lock that she was incapable of operating. at the time, i felt put-upon in my caretaker role. my ignorance put me in this awkward position, and my cowardice got me out of it.

    i was fourteen, and i wasn’t prepared for, or even aware of, the fact that the severity of her disability meant that signing up as her locker partner meant i had a caregiver role in addition to being a lowly freshman (and a geek) in a new school, and then her sole ambassador to the ‘normal’ kids in our class. at that age, and at that level of maturity, i felt awkward enough without help, and didn’t know how to get out of the caretaker role gracefully. so i got out the chicken way – by quietly moving out and saying nothing. there are still times that i think of my cowardice and twitch with shame.

    this wasn’t meant to be a confessional, i’m sure, but i want you to know you’re not the only one who speaks up, nervously, when confronted with thoughtless – and even not-so-thoughtless – invective. i don’t always know what to say, but it’s a rare case when i say nothing. and sometimes, with all the guilt i carry for my own crimes, i feel it’s all i’m qualified to do.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this. The R word is a tough spot for me, too. And yeah, especially with friends. It bothered me even before my sister, who has down syndrome, was born. When I try to explain why using those type of words in that context really *is* awful – so many people think it’s completely acceptable – I send them to this page to read “The Hierarchy of Insults.” http://www.disabilityisnatural.com/email/2005-08.htm She explains it so much better than I ever could.

  3. Wow, this really hit home for me. My little brother has Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and while he’s not technically “retarded”, that term has always bothered me, along with joking about the “short bus” and “Mommy says I’m special (ed)”. My little brother DOES ride the short bus and he IS in special ed, and even though he doesn’t have a diagnosis as retarded, I’m sure a lot of people see him as such because of his lack of social and communication skills. One of my classmates actually joked about the “short bus” today, and I just didn’t have the energy to argue it. So thanks for writing this today, it was good to read.

  4. I think, like many other disparaging and discriminatory words, we use them out of bad habits. We learned them or picked them up out of ignorance, and while we might not mean harm, we simply don’t always think before we speak.

    I am married to a man with a disability. While most people refrain from picking on his particular disability (I don’t know why seem to make better fodder for some than others) I see a lot of stares, hear a lot of comments and inequities.

    I will admit to having used the term, and like cursing it’s often a sign that I should think more and choose my words better. I’ve tried to curb this, but I will make a greater effort now. Thank you for reminding me just how hurtful words can be.

  5. Thank you, it’s a privilege I’ve not thought about as much as I should have.

    Not sure I have much else to say, much to think over though.

  6. Yes, the word “retarded” is used as an insult in Australia too (though “gay” seems to be more popular these days) as a synonym for “crap”, “stupid”, “pathetic” etc. Like you, I try to call people on both whenever I hear them, though I have the privilege of not having so many painful memories to deal with when doing so – my grandmother worked at a workshop for disabled young people and I spent quite a bit of my school holiday time there with her when I was in primary school, but while I learned at a young age the apparently radical lesson that disabled people are just people and deserve friendship and respect as much as anyone else, I never had to stick up for any of the kids when people were cruel to them, because in that environment nobody ever was.

    I’ve never really thought about the word “lame” in the same way, though, and I’m glad you brought it to my attention. It’s come back into pretty common useage these days.

  7. ‘Retarded’ isn’t very current slang in New Zealand, but sometimes people use it to be ironic or retro. ‘Lame,’ on the other hand, is really popular, so much so that it’s one of the toughest weeds to root out of my own vocabulary. (One of my friends used to use ‘gay’ as her all-purpose negative word, and when I explained why ‘I don’t think of it as meaning homosexual!’ didn’t fly, she moved right on to ‘lame’. Sigh.)

  8. I say something all the time. When other people say “retarded” I say “I really don’t like that word, please find something else.” And then I come up with suggestions, usually to make people laugh so they don’t feel like I’m lecturing. “Republican” is the one I like the best and it works pretty well for the purpose– with non-republicans, anyway.

    But it’s really frustrating. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told I’m “making a big deal out of nothing” or “give it up, everybody says it.” I would say that the worst perpetrators of this are my family, as they have to live with me so every time they slip up, they hear about it from me. I don’t really know where to draw the line between “educating” and personal choice. There is freedom of speech in this country, and if I’ve told someone that it’s offensive to me, and tried to suggest alternatives, and I’ve done it nicely in a light “haha let’s say republican instead” way and a “you wouldn’t say that if I had a mental disability, or you wouldn’t like someone to say that if you did” way, and yet they STILL say the word and insist it’s not a big deal, when it comes to family I don’t have much of a choice.

    It is sooooo frustrating. I am a white, skinny, privileged private school girl and people don’t take me seriously on these issues at all. Sometimes I wonder if I can even take myself seriously. Feminism is the only thing I can really get behind with vigor and get people to at least change their behavior in front of me.

  9. I’m in Vancouver, Canada, and people use ‘retarded’ here. I try to call them on it when I hear it or when it’s appropriate. The other one is using the word ‘gay’ as an insult. “That’s so gay!” My brother has a tendency to do this and I call him on it every single time, hoping that eventually he’ll realize that it’s not cool to use that word.

  10. this was terribly touching. i can relate to hallie too. my best and only friend in elementary school was slightly mentally and physically disabled. i practically taught her how to walk without her aids (some shoes with metal bars). after i left that school because i was tired of the bullying, she would still ring me on a regular basis. she learnt my phone by heart. most of my teenhood i was quite mean to her. never called her names nor insulted her, but i was very sharp at our conversations. i would mostly ignore her, because she would talk about the same issue for months. she would always talk to me about soap operas i didn’t care about (and how weird i was to her because i didn’t watch them), or, during my early semesters at university, she would ask me every day about my boyfriend and “him bringing me flowers” and i didn’t have the heart to tell her it’s a long distance relationship nor that sometimes i would have my doubts. yes, THOSE doubts. when the worst thing to had happened to her that day was to find out that one of her favourite corrido singers was murdered months before.
    she hasn’t rang for more than a year. maybe because i’m never at home now (uni, etc.) and she just got tired of never finding me.
    a few times i had rang her before, and she would sound upset. it’s like she has to be on a certain mood to talk to me, and i fear she no longer gets in that mood. in the mood of being friends, sharing feelings, asking questions.
    maybe i needed patience. maybe i needed to stop being such a snot and pretend i cared about her things, or be happy about her being able to care about things and able to find interests in her life, and even in pop culture. maybe i needed not to be such a teenage dirtbag. lower my levels of grunge and, for a few minutes, talk about the simpliest things in life and make happy someone i care about. maybe the key to not being such a smeghead (yay! an insult that doesn’t bother any particular group! only smegs, who don’t exist and who we don’t know what they are. i suggest we use it from now on :D) was being like her, finding joy in the tiniest things.
    that’s what i admire about special people: how a detail, a moment, a situation worths the whole world to them. it can be all shitty and turbulent, but if one nice thing happens around them or to them, then it makes their day. then it’s their best day ever. that ability is what makes them special. that’s where the rest of us are handicapped. and that’s pretty much everything. if you don’t have the skill of joy, then you have nothing.

    thank you so much for posting this. maybe i should look for my friend again.

  11. oh, and in mexico people use “mongolo” or “mongolito” (mongoloid, down syndrome, a generic everyone uses for disabled people). we never use “retrasado” (the r word) as an insult, because i guess that’s a very complex word.

  12. I’ve been trying to weed these words out of my language, as a few years back I became somewhat aware of how often I used words like “stupid” as an insult about myself or someone else. I realize to me that often what bothers me most is a lack of compassion for others (which I can be guilty of when I’m at my worst) and that’s a far worse insult, in my judgement.

  13. Thank you for this post, SweetMachine.

    Sadly, I think many of us share the childhood experience of acting in ways that we are now ashamed of. We humans seem to need tangible slaps in the face, either a family member, close friend, or personal witness of the asshattery of our fellows, to really bring points home to us. Having grown up with the ‘retarded’ insult I have worked very hard to purge it from my vocabulary, and it’s amazing how difficult that is even when you have all the will in the world, once something has been socialized in you.

  14. Over here (UK) mong (also from mongoloid) and spazz (from spastic, as in cerebral palsy) are more common than retard. But it’s all the same.

    I got very annoyed recently when I was at a conference thing from work (I work for Liberal Judaism, sort of head office thingy for a number of synagogues, every two years we have a weekend conference thing with services, workshops, etc, not really a conference in the big formal sense) and I was sitting with one of the rabbis, his partner (I think) and one of the random-congregant-people and they got to talking about someone the congregant lady knew, a nephew or something, who is autistic. She referred to him as an ‘idiot savant’. I couldn’t find a way of pointing out how incredibly offensive and also just plain wrong that phrase is that wouldn’t risk me getting very upset and Unprofessional, so I wimped out. I did consider not-so-subtly mentioning that I am autistic myself, but I think the trying to figure out how to say it and the ARGH WTF head-freeze came together and the moment was gone and basically yeah.

  15. When I was fourteen and in eighth grade I was kicked out of my reading class for being too skilled at reading.


    The teacher took my aside after class one day about a month in, and she said, “I can’t teach you anything. I can’t offer you anything. And your being here is making the other kids feel bad. If you want you can go to the office and see if they have anything for you, or you can just goof off for the period, or whatever you want. But I don’t want you to come back here.”

    So the next day, with nothing to do, I went to the office and asked if they had anything. The special ed teacher had been looking for an assistant. I could help her.

    So I went to the special ed class, told them the ladies in the office said she wanted help, and she sent me to work. Coincidentally, this was the class’s reading hour, so instead of taking a reading class, I took to teaching a reading class.

    I should tell you about my eighth grade year. That year I suffered severe depression. I was getting failing or low grades in nearly all of my classes. I was smart enough, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care. I suddenly saw school as this place built for wasting time. What was I giving to community by being there? What was I building for myself? Grades? Social constructs. Meaningless. An inaccurate and easily manipulated system that served no one. If I was going to do something for myself, I wanted it to be something I wanted – not these projects. And I started to grok that it would never end. They said that middle school would be more difficult than elementary, but it wasn’t. And high school would be more of the same. And then college. And entire system that was keeping me out of the way and telling me that, no matter how skilled, I wasn’t allowed to do anything of be anyone. Not yet. Not ever. This was the time when I started to realise my parents don’t want me for me, they want me for them, and this was when my mother started to be emotionally abusive and before I knew how to properly react or whether or not it was my fault.

    It was easily the most frustrated and difficult year of my life (so far. I’m only 20).

    And the reason I stayed sane? Those special ed kids. They kept me going. School was a waste of time and I wasn’t serving or helping anybody by taking those classes. But I was helping them. They liked me and they needed me and I felt like I really was making a difference.

    And they got me away from the school when I wouldn’t have had other excuses. I was asked to come along as an aid on field trips and other outings, and so got to go along with them to the park or the rollerena and find a release from the science class or that social studies class that I couldn’t handle in that moment. And I got to go because unlike (seemingly, to me) everyone else in the world, these kids wanted me around.

    My main student was a guy I’ll call J. J hated reading. He made me laugh, because if I was really nice I could sort of trick him into reading. But then he’d realise and get mad at me. I adored him, but he had a sort of love/hate relationship with me, because I tutored him in his least favourite subject. He really loved the Backstreet Boys, and so for the talent show, he sang one of their songs, and I got a couple of girls together and we were his back-up dancers. By the time the song was over, the whole school was up and dancing with him (his was the last performance of the night) storming the stage to join him. And it wasn’t in mockery of him or his music choice. It really was in support.

    J eventually went on to go to the same high school I did a couple years later and my sister eventually because his Buddy Club buddy. He performed Backstreet Boys songs in every talent show from my eighth grade one on, and so my sister helped him when he performed in the high school shows.

    He died a few months ago. In his honor they played his favourite song, “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely” over the speaker system. My sister told me that everyone started crying. I cried when I heard.

    Here’s the thing, if it hadn’t been for J and that special ed class, I don’t know what would have happened to me. They saved my life, and my sanity.

    When people say “retarded” like it’s some kind of insult, I just don’t understand. I think of J. I think of my cousin with Down’s. I think of my friend V. I just don’t get how anyone could think saying that there’s something wrong with them, that being like them is an insult, is okay. It doesn’t even make sense to me.

    And I always speak up. I will always, always speak up.

    It’s one of the most telling things, I think, about my parents and the home I grew up in, that it is a home where we are never ever, under any circumstances, allowed to say “shit” or “ass” or (God Forbid!) “fuck.” But a home where “retarded” or “gay” are allowed to be used freely.

    It is this sort of disconnect that creates many or most of the issues between my parents and myself.

  16. In Germany, curse words alluding to disability can be heard fairly often.
    “Behindert” (someone or something is retarded), “Spast” (short for someone who is spastic; used like “idiot”), “Krüppel” (cripple; used when somebody is physically disabled), “lahm” (lame), “Mongo” (mongoloid; generic insult for someone lacking in intelligence). While most of these words are primarily used by kids/teens, some words are also used in “normal” conversation and aren’t regarded offensive. (This is also the case for words like “schwul” (gay) and other words associated with being homosexual (e.g. “Alter, das is so schwul!” = “Dude, that’s so gay!”)). I’m trying not to use words like that, but they manage to creep into my language because I hear them all the time.

    IMO, Germany is pretty insensitive towards people with (physical) disabilities. Buildings here aren’t required to have ramps for wheelchairs, getting in and out of public transportation is often impossible without help from others and many people are insensitive towards the disabled.
    My aunt, who is blind, was walking arm-in-arm with her daughter when a guy bumped into her. He was quite angry and asked her “Can’t you watch out? Are you blind?!” and she answered “Yes, I am!”. He then became even angrier and said “There’s no reason to become impertinent!”. My aunt and cousin were laughing by this time and when the man realized that she was, in fact, blind, he just stormed off without apologizing or saying another word.

  17. Holy Haruhi Suzumiya, I wrote a freaking novel. Sorry about that. Oh, and I wasn’t allowed to do anything of be anyone should be I wasn’t allowed to do anything or be anyone.

  18. I am also working on removing this one, and your post will go a long way to helping me. Thank you for sharing it: the visceral response I get to hearing your experiences are worth a thousand theoretical discussions, and will pin themselves more strongly to my heart than anything else.

  19. I haven’t been calling people out for using the word “retarded.” It’s something that I should do, but I do tend to simply dismiss people who use that word, and others like it. How can I have an intelligent conversation with someone who speaks that way? There also seems to be a strong correlation between a person’s use of that word and that person’s lack of maturity.

  20. It goes to show how difficult we find it to get out of measuring everyone against ourselves.

    That ‘idiot savant’ tag really brings it home, if we (sans disabilities), can’t figure out how someone else’s mind or body works, we label them with our confusion.
    If we don’t understand them are we or they the ‘idiots’? It’s got to be them hasn’t it, ‘cos the other way around threatens to burst our bubble, and that could be upsetting.

  21. How can I have an intelligent conversation with someone who speaks that way? There also seems to be a strong correlation between a person’s use of that word and that person’s lack of maturity.

    Keshmeshi, I understand that impulse, but I run into this way too often to be able to dismiss it. I have friends with multiple graduate degrees who are minorities themselves and have experience with systemic prejudice who say “retarded;” I’ve had coworkers and even bosses who say it. The insidious thing about its use is not that people mean to be hurtful or insensitive; it’s that people who would be horrified to cause that kind of offense don’t even register “retarded” as an offensive word. They don’t hear it. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to call people out, IMO.

    Hallie, TM, thanks for sharing your stories. And thanks to everyone for listening and for providing your local equivalent insult — it’s illuminating and depressing at once.

  22. This is such an excellent post. I’m half-white, bisexual and in an opposite-sex relationship, and I have an invisible disability, so I’ve often experienced situations where people don’t expect me to be aware of racism/heterosexism/ableism, and I try to call people out lots ot times. I definitely could do it more, though. I get so afraid of people being mad at me for calling them out, and many of the people I know get super defensive. I am really working on getting over it and doing it anyway, though. I have used ableist words in the past, but I try so hard to be aware now. I’m so glad to read this post.

  23. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize these were offensive terms. When I was growing up, “re-re” (as in retarded) was my dad’s favorite insult for me. When he couldn’t think of anything else in the course of an argument, he’d pull that out ’cause he knew it drove me insane. Oh, and he was a gym teacher and sports coach at the time. Who went on to become a principal. Charming, huh? Great role model there…

  24. *Is “retarded” used as “generic negative slang word” in other countries, too? I have never heard anything about this either way.

    To answer your question: most emphatically YES! Both in Central Europe where I’m from and in Northern Europe where I live right now the outdated terms for intellectual impairment or physical handicap (debility, idiocy, cripple etc.) are used on an almost daily basis. It’s shameful, really. I do try to call people out on it but sometimes get laughed at because I’m a psychologist and they think me overly sensitive… What can I say, some people are assholes, pure and simple.

  25. When other people say “retarded” I say “I really don’t like that word, please find something else.” And then I come up with suggestions, usually to make people laugh so they don’t feel like I’m lecturing. “Republican”

    LOL!! You just made my day.

    ps: this main post has given me a lot of pause for thought. I often use the words ’emotionally retarded’ when describing someone. In a sense I think it’s apt, but there are better ways to express my frustration and I hadn’t really thought of how crass it is to co-opt slang like that… Major room for improvement, there. Thanks for the post sweetmachine!

  26. Sweetmachine I never hear people say cripple – that one is surprising. I knew my grandmother to use it (not with malice; when it was acceptable) and I used it (and lame) regarding myself when the term actually fit me but no one said it about me. Well once someone did but she said “crip” and it was a deliberate insult so I got pissed.

    I think there are some legitimate uses for the word retardation, but certainly not to mean stupid or asshole or anything of that nature. A legitimate use would be saying the chemical X retards the growth of the plant. Or starvation could retard an animal’s growth. Other than that sort of thing there’s no need to use it when what you mean is “jerkoff.”

  27. I’m suddenly stung by the irony that (a) I often use a cane and (b) “lame” is one of my Top Five Disparaging Words. I also have a habit of using “cripple” to describe myself while with cane, mostly to shock strangers out of being “nice” to me (“nice” usually equalling “borderline-patronizing”), and now I wonder where that fits in.

    Talk about “straddling the liminal space between privilege and non-privilege,” though! On my good days, I’m not disabled. Period. My body and brain are fully functional, and I’m as or more capable than the average Joe. On bad days, though, I need my cane to walk, I’m incapable of standing upright, and I struggle to do simple math or remember where I parked my car.

    And even on my bad days, I don’t take the kind of flak from most people that many disabled folk do. I get the evil or confuzzled eye (“what’s that perfectly healthy twentysomething doing with a cane, anyway? Is it catching?”) occasionally, but much more often people are wiling to hold doors for me, offer their seat, or share the story of The Time Their Brother Broke His Leg Playing Softball and Was On Crutches For, Like, Two Years (an attempt at compassion and solidarity I try to take in the spirit in which it’s offered). I know it helps that I’m young, white, thin, and apart from the cane and the pained expression, look and talk Just Like Folks.

    Thanks, sweetmachine. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  28. What’s really sad is that until it was recently mentioned in the comments of a different post, I didn’t even know that “lame” meant anything other than “uncool” because English is not my first language and that’s how I was introduced to the word. I’ll have some trouble adjusting.

    That said, I get really upset whenever someone uses “retarded” or “gay” – or “fat” – as an insult. I used to be scared of people with certain disabilities as a child, but I never mocked them. I considered myself bisexual for a few years, but I’ve never had a relationship with anyone but my current boyfriend and thus I don’t think I’ll ever be sure if I really am, and I don’t usually tell people. I am also a thin person supporting FA, and as a result, nobody understands me. Add to that the fact that I was once suspected to be slightly autistic and that I don’t find the common beauty ideal attractive … yeah. Everyone just thinks I’m the weird person who will defend anyone and anything for no particular reason. They don’t even listen to me anymore.

    I’ve had to live and work with some people who were quite … well, I can’t think of a fitting word, but all of them had psychological issues and most of them had failed school or dropped out early. They frequently made fun of everyone, sometimes including themselves, who was “different” in one way or another. It was sickening and I had to put up with it almost on a daily basis. Sometimes I dared to speak up, but all I got in return was blank stares and the occasional, “but they are ridiculous.” How was I supposed to argue with that?? Most of them were rather aggressive, too, so I just shut up and ignored them.

    I wish people would understand.

  29. share the story of The Time Their Brother Broke His Leg Playing Softball and Was On Crutches For, Like, Two Years (an attempt at compassion and solidarity I try to take in the spirit in which it’s offered).

    Oh man, people used to do this to me constantly — stories about people with disabilities (usually with Down) whom they knew even marginally. When I was younger this was often even weirder because Down syndrome has been associated with a shorter lifespan — so people would often tell me about that nice young man who worked at the KMart and then they’d get this pained look on their faces because they’d remember that he died young. I would always be patient, but I just wondered what on earth they thought they were conveying by telling me that kind of story. I understand where that impulse comes from, but sheesh.

  30. BTW, my last comment is not to discourage people to share their stories here! I was thinking more of, say, new neighbors coming up to my family in our driveway to regale us with stories of their favorite grocery store cashier.

  31. I have, I am ashamed to admit, used my share of “lame.” I always thought it referred to insufficient effort rather than ability. I sit corrected.

    So now my brain takes off with wondering whether I’m allowed to say that somebody or something is “stupid,” “idiotic,” “crazy,” etc. I could, of course, legitimately claim to be all three of those things and therefore I’m only describing members of my own group. (Yes, I’ve made countless references to the “loony bin,” before AND after I was in one.)

  32. Right now I’m working to take the phrase “special needs” out of my vocabulary. I have scoliosis, and rather than going into that (it’s surprising how many people don’t know what that is) I’ll say something like, “Oh, my back’s being very special needs today, can I sit in the other chair?” It never really occurred to me before a month or so ago that this could be offensive, so now I’m trying to eliminate it. As frustrated as I got with my former students using “gay” or “retarded” as shorthand insults, I’m all the more frustrated with myself having my own shorthand.

  33. I’m 52 and I have a younger sister who has a moderate to severe cognitive disabilty. I just had to do a Google search to try to figure out what was the correct term to use. I grew up with “mentally retarded” being the proper way to describe her disability, and I referred to her as my retarded sister, thinking of it as a description, not an insult. It appears that “mental retardation” is still sometimes used as a formal term: http://www.nichcy.org/pubs/factshe/fs8txt.htm

    Is it ok to say “my sister who has mental retardation”?
    It seemed for a while that developmentally delayed was the acceptable way to describe her but that didn’t make sense, she isn’t going to catch up. Cognitive disability is better because her disability is specifically cognitive, not social. I learned only much later that she technically has cerebral palsy, but particularly when she was young she had very little physical impairment so that gave the wrong impression. I still don’t have a way to describe her that feels right.

    My sister lives in a private institution because in addition to her cognitive impairment she has seizures that cannot be fully controlled. She visits my mother for vacations four times a year, and if I am visiting at the same time I’m the one who takes her to church. My favorite experience is one year we were at a church on Pentecost that had a tradition on that day of asking everyone to say the Lord’s Prayer in whatever other languages they knew. My sister loves to say the Lord’s Prayer, fairly loudly, and she is a little slower than everone else. Usually she is obviously different and my experience has always been that people smile at her. But at that church on Pentecost she fit right in.

    Now my husband has been diagnosed as in the early stages of Lewy Body Dementia, a form of Parkinson’s disease that involves first problems with executive function (planning and organizing) and later hallucinations and Alzheimer’s-like behavior. I have to focus on how impaired he is, because I’m having to take over all household planning and managing. Other people talk to him and he may seem fine. Our kids are 15 and 17 and are away at school. I’m hoping I can take the approach with them that nothing has changed except there are a few things Dad can’t do any more because the disease is affecting his brain. But I’m feeling overwhelmed, feeling how can I possibly manage everything.

    So sweetmachine, I would love to hear anything you would be willing to share about having a parent with progressive cognitive impairment. Help! What is the best way to present it to my kids? So far I’ve told my daughter that her Dad has a form of Parkinson’s disease that affects his brain but the example I used is that he can’t spell a four letter word backwards, so I made it sound like the effects are trivial. He doesn’t have hallucinations yet. When he does can we just normalize that, acknowledge it and act like it isn’t a big deal, or is that too confusing for kids?

    Dementia is another of those words, I just realized. Dementia is used as a formal description but demented is an insult. And people have no idea what dementia means beyond Alzheimer’s. It is all too hard for me right now.

  34. when I think of lame, even though its often used as slang for uncool as zilly said, I imidiately think of horses. Probably because thats the first time I heard it used.

    This post is a little surreal because I was out with people last night and the word retarded was used at least three or four times in the span of a few minutes. I forget who was being talked about now, but it struck me then as odd. Then I find this post this morning. I’ve been around so many people who are special education teachers or are going to school for it that I’ve been through alot of different politically correct terminology. My brain sends up a red flag on the word, but I don’t have the movies or life experiences that make it anything more than “this is not right”. But like was said by the time I get back to whats going on and want to ask or call someone on it, the conversation has moved on and no one would know what I was talking about.

  35. Is it ok to say “my sister who has mental retardation”?

    My instinct would be that yes, in a case like that, where it’s obviously meant as a descriptor and comes out of a loving relationship, it’s okay, especially if it’s a situation in which the details aren’t pertinent. From my perspective, the issue is more with using “retarded” etc. to insult people who, medically speaking, aren’t.

    I’d equate it with how it’s fine to say someone is gay, if what you mean by it is homosexual, but not fine to say something is gay as a way of saying it’s undesirable.

    Of course, if those with more personal experience in this matter disagree, please tell me so I can avoid making this mistake in future.

  36. Sorry to post so often, but Stevie’s post above sparked something in my mind.

    I have a pair of friends, Girl and Guy, with whom I hang out fairly regularly. Guy has a sister in her late twenties who, due to a near-drowning experience, will never progress mentally above the age of 12 or so. Girl has a tendency to use “retarded” to refer to any and all things that bother her; I rarely hang out with her without Guy, and somehow I feel like calling her out when he doesn’t is stepping on his toes, claiming offense on his behalf, or *somehow* inappropriate. Does anyone have any thoughts on that?

  37. I’ve also been working at eliminating language like that from my vocabulary. Once back when I was teaching chemistry, and referred to a special case, I cracked wise with something like, “Not special as in rides the short bus to school special”. Turned out, one of my students had a developmentally disabled brother, and it really hurt her feelings. Luckily, she had courage enough to confront me on it, and I sincerely apologized. I’m still deeply sorry for it, and wish I could take those words back.

    Here in Denmark, I’ve heard “åndssvag” (literally soul-weak) used as a derogatory term for people, ideas, etc., and I know it used to be the “accepted term” for people with mental disabilities (nowadays I think they use “psykisk handikappet”, but I’m not positive about that). I think I’ve also heard “spastiker” (as in those with palsy) applied to people, both those with the condition and someone who’s just being clumsy.

  38. As the mother of a young adult son who has a form of schizophrenia, can I also respectfully ask people to think about the language they use relating to that? Since he’s become sick, I’ve become very aware of how often people use the term “psychotic” to refer to anyone they consider unreasonable and annoying, or “psycho” to mean dangerous or evil.

    My son’s been acutely psychotic, terrified and hallucinating; he’s not evil, he’s never been dangerous, and he’s not any more annoying than any of us. But when I try to gently point out how hurtful throwing around terms like psychotic or psycho are, even people who understand that the slang use of words like retarded is insensitive just look at me blankly.

  39. I’m not big on using “retarded,” but I do tend to use other disablist words, like lame (unable to walk), dumb (unable to talk, now colloquially means “stupid”), idiot/moron (outdated words for severe and mild intellectual disability, respectively), crazy/insane (mental illness). I don’t tend to think of “stupid” as disablist, since it does not specifically refer to levels of intellectual impairment that are legally classified as disability, but it is elitist and disparaging of one end of human variation the way the use of “fat” as an insult is. (And I generally don’t use fat as an insult, and even before I discovered the Fatosphere I’ve called out my bf at times for making too many nasty comments about my older sister’s weight. She’s maybe around Joy Nash or Mo Pie sized – a “typical endomorph.”) It will take some work to replace disablist and elitist terms with acceptable substitutes…”pathetic” and “ridiculous” seem ok, unless the latter has some origin as a descriptor of disability that I don’t know of.

    I don’t think I ever got into using gay as an insult, for some reason. And I don’t think it was just because of my formerly homosexual/now transgendered (f-to-m, pre/non-op last I knew) cousin.

  40. Shoot, that wasn’t supposed to be a smiley. It was supposed to be a close parenthesis.

  41. Um. I think smeg is short for smegma, which is a substance that collects under the foreskin of an uncircumsized man or under the clitoral hood. So a smeghead probably is a reference to an unwashed penis.

  42. Thank you for the reminder.

    I must confess that I still occasionally use the words “fucktard” and “lame” because I never bothered to consider their implications when I first heard them in use.

    It’s definitely something I’ll be working on.

  43. I was thinking about this issue the other day, while driving, because driving is the best time to think about things like this. I have recently been using “lame” a lot more in my vocabulary, and realized that probably wasn’t kind. I am thinking about going back to school to be a teacher, and was trying to think of a word that my students could substitute for all those hurtful ones that kids like to use– “retard”, “gay”, “faggot”, etc.

    And the thing is, there’s just NOT one. Any time you use a word in a derogatory fashion, you are insinuating that there is something less about the people who that word actually describes.

    When we were young, we used to like to call each other proctologists. What were we really saying? Probably insinuating that there was something unnatural, creepy and wrong about a doctor who specialized in the lower digestive tract. And I’ve noticed some alternatives that people are offering to “retard” that I don’t particularly care for.

    Jerkoff- some one who masturbates? Are we saying there is something unnatural, creepy and wrong about masturbation?

    Republican- I don’t really like that either… mostly because I feel like it would become a euphemism… you say republican, because republicans are (insert the word you REALLY meant here).

    If we REALLY think about the words we use as insults, it seems to come up that nothing is acceptable– perhaps because negative language, no matter what the word, is not constructive, and is hurtful to others no matter who the insult is being used against.

    We would have to be REALLY creative to come up with words that we could all agree represented something undesirable that wouldn’t degrade large groups of people.

  44. Midsize Lurker – my brother’s favorite word to call people is stupid. Usually this is when he’s having a bad day at school or something isn’t going right (he has a learning disability). The whole house knows the definition of stupid as making poor choices. Or someone who makes poor choices. My mom got sicks of hearing him say that and so she went to the dictionary. Now when ever I say something is stupid, I automaticly wonder if thats correct, that a poor choice was made.

    that may be only one of the dictionary definitions, but it helped cut down on the name calling in the house.

    I prefer spooty however. As far as I know its a made up word from the cartoon “the angry beavers” from nickelodeon. It could be from something else, and feel free to correct me.

  45. I have sometimes wondered if, having been fat all my life and ridiculed frequently for it, I became more aware of “words that insult.” Or maybe it’s because I suffered some extreme illnesses immediately after birth that made my folks think I’d never mentally progress beyond age 12 or so. Whichever, I never allow things like “tard” or “retard” in my vicinity, just like no “lame” and no “gay” (said in a derogatory descriptive way) and no “short bus” references – just to name some – get past me. My BFF’s daughter, aged 13, used to say a number of these things, but I like to think my explanations of why they’re just not cool are having some effect. Still, it’s amazing to me how brutal language can be.

    Just as an aside, one of the most meaningful days of my life happened years ago in high school. Our school district was doing a presentation on various schools, and several high school photographers (including me) were sent to document goings on at each facility. My assignment was the school for the disabled. Those kids were a hoot! They were so welcoming – and they chatted incessantly, and insisted on knowing every detail of the workings of my camera. I had to clean my lens of fingerprints a hundred times, but we all laughed about it. At the same time, while it was a joy to me, it was also heartbreaking because it was the day before our Senior Ball – and I was keenly aware of the differences in our life paths. That was quite daunting.

    Anyway… sorry for the novel. {{{SM}}} Ya done good.

  46. My partner uses “retard” and “retarded” all the time. I don’t use it as a pejorative, but mostly because I HATE it when people use “gay” to mean bad/stupid/strange. I rarely call my friends out on the “gay” quip because, well, my life it politicized enough from people who don’t and will never know me.

    And I used “gypped” all the time until someone here — I think it was fillyjonk — explained that it’s a denigration of gypsies. Had no idea. Now, I say “cheated.”

  47. This one really hit home with me. My little brother had Down’s Syndrome. Like many Down’s children, he had numerous other health issues and as a consequence died fairly young. It’s been enough years now that I don’t think about him as often as I probably should, but I’ll confess that after reading sweet machine’s post and the comments that follow, I’m reaching for the Kleenex.

  48. This was a wonderful post – thank you for sharing something so personal as a way of opening our eyes to things the rest of us might not know or see.

    I learned long ago (maybe around age 8 or so) that to use “retarded” as an insult was both wrong and cruel, but you really helped me to realize that I use other words (like “lame”) without really thinking about the implications. I’ll be more careful in the future.

  49. Sorry to post twice, but I also wanted to mention something your post made me think of – disabilities you can’t see. I’m positive that those who are obviously physically or mentally disabled have it the hardest in general society, in terms of being made fun of, stared at, and ignored, not to mention the difficulty of simply navigating the world. However, I couldn’t help identify with you a bit, SM, as you said that you “pass” as a person who doesn’t think about disability. So do I. I have an eye disease (I mentioned it once before here, in a response to a post by FJ in which she talked about accepting who we are, even if it means facing up to scary things), which means I can’t see a thing at night, or in dark places. I also have trouble with my peripheral vision – just walking down the street, it can feel as people are suddenly coming at me from all sides. This isn’t something visible to anyone else, and for years, I tried to laugh it off or pretend it didn’t exist. I would say I just accidentally tripped instead of admitting that I totally didn’t see a step in a dark restaurant. These days, I’m totally open about it – I tell people I can’t see, I ask for help when I need it. I’d rather do that than be ashamed, or suffer in fear of dark places without anyone knowing what’s going on with me. (The other day, a friend asked for a different table for us in a restaurant, because the one we were shown to was too dark. She did that for me, but didn’t make a big deal of it. She never would have known to do that if I hadn’t started speaking up.)

    People will never know how to speak, or act, or help, unless those of us who do know about disability from ourselves and the people we love, start talking about it. Bravo to you for addressing your friend, and to your friend for being so open to discussing it and accepting your statement without being defensive.

  50. While we’re talking about What Words Mean…

    In high school, the sisters (Benedictine Nuns) who ran the school i went to had an annual “talk to the freshman about cuss words” event. It was always played off like it was something new, they’d never needed to do it before. The shock value of hearing a nun so plainly swear was enough to get our attention like whoa. You could always tell when the freshman had been given The Talk because they’d walk out of theology class with their eyes as big as dinner plates, their faces looking as if they’d seen a ghost.

    One of the things they talked about in that Talk was the word “fuck”.

    “Fuck”, being of relatively obscure origins, has several definitions – “to fuck someone” could mean to engage in sex with them, but “to fuck someone over” could mean to cheat someone out of something. It implies anger, contempt, disgust – things that should never go hand in hand with sex… but frequently are a part of rape.

    So when you say “fuck you” to someone, are you really hoping that that person gets raped? What is it you are really saying?

  51. I am working on getting rid of this too. It is surprisingly hard. And I find myself without phrases that are colorful enough to express the depths of my rage. I don’t think that “taint-scum” is going to go over very well with the boss. But definitely working on it.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s illness. I never know what the right thing to say is… so (((HUUG)))

    My family has been through a lot of crap with my mom. (also named Pam.) For us it was probably easier to deal with because she has had some brain damage as long as I have known her, though she had been slowly recovering. When my sister was 15, and I was 20 she had a massive stroke, and since then we have been dealing with her recovery. I know there are a lot of obvious differences here, but since our ages were fairly similar at the time I just wanted to weigh in a bit.

    I have to say that the most traumatic part of our Mom’s illness was the fact that our father waited a full week before telling us anything. I was 600 miles away at college, but my sister was living in the house, and he did not tell her what happened. He felt like he was sheltering us in a way. But I will never be able to look back on that week of my life as anything but stolen. While my mom was lying unconscious in a hospital bed I was living my life completely oblivious. And that hurts, so does not being able to trust your father. Neither one of us feel like we can trust him as much anymore, and we don’t feel like he has confidence in us either. I know he thought he was doing what was best for me and my sister by not burdening us. But ultimately it was incredibly hurtful and made the whole situation even more upsetting.

    You know your kids better than anyone. So try to communicate what is going on to them in an appropriate way. And you obviously have more time. But I really want to encourage you not to lie to them or hide things from them. They are fully old enough to be aware of what is going on and to learn to deal with it. It will be hard for all of you, but softening the blow, well, it just doesn’t really work. And they can help you! You aren’t doing this alone, you are all doing it together.

    Also, if you try to minimize the seriousness now, they may not take advantage of your husband current good health to go out and enjoy life together as a family. (They may not anyway, because they are teenagers.)

    Keep the lines of communication open, and your family will find ways to cope together. You’ll figure out what works for you. Every family is different and they deal with things differently, I can only encourage you to try to do it together.

    Our family, we make jokes. Our current joke is Mom’s “Helper Dog” we talked about getting her one, and that’s not happening, so now whoever is fetching her cane or helping her with the bathroom is her “helper dog.” And y’know, it’s probably not very funny when you look at it from the oustside. My sister and I often tell laughing stories about how my Mom is not all there and other people think it is aweful. But this is how we deal with it. We can’t make her better, at least we can laugh.

  52. Time-Machine, trust me, you are not alone. For a little bit there I was wondering who’d been writing my school experience, but I didn’t get kicked out of class. I’d have been perfectly happy to have been, but instead, my reading teacher tried to flunk me because I wasn’t reading books from the library. I started reading the minimum pages from the library, then doing other things. No, the work doesn’t get any harder, but getting it all done does. No, there’s very little to care about, its mostly just a game. If you can decide to play the game for your own purposes, you’ll probably do quite well, until then, I’d suggest that you take a break from it all. And Haruhi rocks.

    On to the post. Unfortunately, like many, I have noticed some of those words crossing my lips, but I’m working on it. I’ve gotten to where I’m more likely to use standard cuss words because I think they are (or should be) less offensive. I still think “asshat” works. I would imagine that most “acceptable” insults focus on comparing someone negatively to the general populations, which “retarded,” “lame,” and “gay” all manage to do. Very very few would choose to be any of those things because they come with all sorts of restrictions and limitations. But those also presuppose that “normal” is the ultimate in desirable commodities, and that makes it much easier for me to wash them from my system. I really don’t get why anyone would want to be “normal.” To me, its just another word for interchangable. Normal is a good way to disappear.

  53. I want to offer a different perspective on the word retarded, which I use frequently in context specific ways. My oldest son is 15 and has Down Syndrome. Since his birth, one of the biggest problems we have had is the extent to which service professionals (doctors, social workers, etc.) have tried, apparently, to spare our feelings by adopting a “soft touch” vocabulary that seemed designed to avoid ever talking directly about what was wrong with my son. This seemed very odd since there was no way my wife or I could hide from his disabilities. I came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to say “retarded” because it made them uncomfortable with its raw, unvarnished statement of the truth. So yeah, my son is retarded. In his case it is ontological: it is part and parcel of his very being, and I love him just as he is. So if I can deal with it, so can everyone else.

  54. With regard to the use of words like “fucktard,” I actually use “fuckard” instead. The suffix -ard means one who engages in a particular activity, retard has a totally different root (latin instead of germanic). And the -ard is associated with other negative name calling like drunkard, or coward.

  55. The very first time I really started thinking about these kinds of things was in high school. I had a friend who was gay, and I was just chatting with him one day, and I referred to something as “so queer.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized what I had said, and I was horrified. I apologized to my friend, and I have never used “queer” in that way again.

    Lame, though – that one is a struggle for me. I have been having such a hard time removing it from my speech, and I don’t know why. I have a sister who is severely autistic, and I would quickly smack down anyone who insulted her, but whenever I find anything distasteful, it seems like “lame” is the first word that springs to mind. I don’t think I like what that says about me. I am really, honestly trying to stop it though.

    On a related note, what to do if a friend uses “lame” as a pejorative in the mean time? I used to use it that way all the time, and I still slip up on occasion, so do I have any credibility on this issue? I suppose I could start out by acknowledging my own shortcomings in this area, but that seems like it has the potential to turn lecture-y, which I feel like could turn people off. Has anyone else dealt with this issue?

  56. Sweetmachine, my brother also has global cognitive disabilities that don’t really fit a label. We use “autism” when people seem to need one and he has been diagnosed as autistic but his disability is much more complicated than a single diagnosis.

    He’s 6 years younger than me so I probably would have had a fairly “caretaker” role anyway but given his disabilities I think of myself as much more of an aunt type figure than a sisterly one. Although I do pick on him in a uniquely sibling-esque way its stuff like singing along with the radio which drives him insane or holding my hand in front of his face saying I’m not touching him. He is so funny and kind and just an all around awesome kid, I hope his life is full of joy and happiness. He graduates from high school this year (he’s 19) and sometimes I’m scared for what will become of him, but he has family that loves him and would do anything for him, and my mother is blessed with the resources to care for him without trouble, so we’re lucky.

    I might do a post today in honor of blog against disablism if I get a few minutes. Thanks for the inspiration :)

  57. Pam, I think the preferred term is developmentally disabled. Do you feel that’s a good descriptor for your sister? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the term “mental retardation” if you’re not using it as an insult, but it’s fallen out of favour because so many people use it as an insult that it has acquired negative connotations. (I think the same thing happened with older terms like “idiot” and “moron”, although I could be wrong).

    I’m a Brownie leader, and one of the girls in my group is developmentally disabled. It’s been a challenge working with her, because she needs a lot more personal attention than the other girls. But she is incredibly sweet and good natured, and I’ve learned a lot about developmental disabilities from working with her. One thing I’ve really learned is how inaccurate the phrase: “She has the mind of a [x number] year old” is. When I first started working with Anna (who is seven years old) I thought it was like working with a much younger child. I might have said: “She has the mind of a three year old.” But she doesn’t. She has the abilities of a three year old when it comes to a lot of things (primarily when it comes to both speaking and understanding language), but her mind is still seven. And I made a mistake by treating her like a three year old at first because I didn’t realise how much she noticed and understood. I hope I’ve managed to correct that, and that I’ll do better if I end up working with other girls like her in future.

  58. i find it a bit disappointing that within this post about bringing attention to the hurtful and offensive use of language, the word “bitching” is used without a second thought. not only have i seen it used (in variations: bitch, bitchy, etc.) in the comments throughout this site, but it’s basically widespread and accepted in seemingly all english-speaking countries!

    just as “retarded” brings up for you visions of hurt and abuse, when i hear “bitch” i think of how it often spits from the mouth of a man as he beats or rapes a woman. in its milder uses, it still always implies that someone is shit and/or somewhat worthless because s/he either is a woman or is acting like a woman.

  59. I have a HUGE problem with my own usage of these words. Until recently, I never understood the damage that they do, and if pressed about it, would get defensive and say the (now token) “I don’t really MEAN retarded.” But upon reflection I realized that if I wouldn’t say the word in the presence of some one that is disabled, then I shouldn’t use it at all.
    And while I don’t have any family members that are disabled, I do relate to a life time of emotions that are brought up when some one carelessly uses words with out thinking. As some of you know, my mother completed suicide three years ago, and every times someone says ‘”I’m going to kill myself” or “I want to slit my wrists” or “they should just go hang themselves” I remember what it was like to sit on my stoop and call my other family members to let them know that mom had completed suicide.
    Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to make others feel awkward, and I really don’t want to discuss it. Does that make me a coward?

  60. Thank you. As you probably know, I have gone off on a rant or two about this in the comments before, being the mother of a phenomenal kkid on the autistic spectrum (PDD-NOS, for those in the club).

    I doubt that most people even think of the alternative meanings when they use a term such as gay or retarded pejoratively . Just like when a thin person says “I’m so fat it’s disgusting” and you’re standing there being much, much fatter.

    People need to come out of their little ego bubbles and realize that their reality is not everyone else’s reality.

  61. And I used “gypped” all the time until someone here — I think it was fillyjonk — explained that it’s a denigration of gypsies. Had no idea. Now, I say “cheated.”

    I listen to a podcast called A Way With Words, where people call in and ask language questions. (it’s fantastic, everyone should download it.) They had someone call in and ask about “gypped,” and the lexicographer hosts investigated it and claimed there was no actual connection between “gypped” and “gypsy.”

    The reality of the etymology doesn’t make much difference, though, if anyone who hears you *hears* it as an insult, so they suggested using “ripped” in its place–it feels very natural because phonetically it’s very similar, everyone knows what “ripped off” is, etc.

  62. the lexicographer hosts investigated it and claimed there was no actual connection between “gypped” and “gypsy.”

    This is interesting but I find it really hard to believe — so it’s just a coincidence that a word for “cheat” is spelled the same as a term used to describe a culture that’s often believed to be made up of thieves? Most dictionaries seem to disagree, for whatever it’s worth.

    But your main point is well-taken: that what’s important is whether people are hurt. (Though I honestly don’t know if they are. I believe we have at least one Roma reader and I’d be interested if she wanted to weigh in.) I’d go even a step further and say that the real hub of what’s important is the willingness to reevaluate your language or phrasing when people find it hurtful — even if you didn’t know, and even if you don’t think they should consider it offensive. Nobody (or nobody who’s not kind of a jerk) is asking anyone to maintain a constantly updated database of words that oppressed groups find hurtful, but the willingness to say “I didn’t know, and I’m sorry” goes a long way.

    But upon reflection I realized that if I wouldn’t say the word in the presence of some one that is disabled, then I shouldn’t use it at all.

    Great rubric.

  63. I wasn’t going to comment (everyone’s already said what there is to say, as far as I’m concerned, and if everyone thought like the people here did, we wouldn’t be having this problem) but then I reached Pam’s comment and I had a million things to say. I’ll try to limit myself to just a few though.

    So, Pam:

    A few years ago, much like shinobi’s mother, my mum had a severe stroke. She was in a coma for several weeks and at first the prognosis was not good. Her right side was completely paralysed and there was brain damage the doctors couldn’t assess fully without her waking up. I was at college when it happened; my younger brother is the one who found her and called the amulance. I got a call from my dad and brother who could only give me what they knew: stroke, coma, wait till she wakes up.

    There were two more weeks left of the semester and I sat through them. Then I could finally go home. A few days later, my mother woke up. She couldn’t move her right arm or leg and the right side of her face was paralysed. On top of that, she had some damage in the parts of her brain that affect memory and speech control, as well as some other areas.

    The good news was that the damage wasn’t as bad as the doctors had feared. But she wasn’t going to make a full recovery either. Today, my mother is walking again (with a strong limp, and definitely not marathon-like distances) and her speech has cleared up so that – if she speaks slowly enough – you won’t know she even has a problem with it. (Of course, then she struggles to find the right words and it’s still only gibberish that comes out even though she knows what she wants and what she means – and people get this half-relieved, half-pitying look that I hate.)

    So, as someone whose parent has a disability, my advice to you is: be honest with your children. Don’t be crass or overwhelm them, but don’t try to hide or make his condition out to be less than what it is. You can’t really prepare someone for anything like this, but by telling them the truth you can prepare them as well as possible.

    I knew the basics of my mother’s condition when I visited her the first time, and it still shocked me to see my mother, someone who’d always been a strong person who hated to admit any weakness, lying in a hospital bed, unable to move, with drool running down her cheek because she couldn’t control her facial muscles. It shocked me to see her try to speak and then get angry and frustrated because the words didn’t come out right and no one could understand her. The paralysis of her right side means that she couldn’t even write down what she meant.

    But I also realised that the experience could have been far worse. If my father hadn’t told me directly what the extent of her condition was, it would have hit me harder. And not only that; I would have felt betrayed and left alone by my father.

    So. Be honest. Don’t try to pretty it up to make it easier on them. It’s never going to be easy for them; all you can do is make it less frightening and prepare them for what can happen. A stroke is sudden and unexpected, so I can’t help you how to specifically deal with a progressive illness, but I definitely think your children need to know how bad it can get.

    ~ sera

  64. Kate’s sister J, I think you’re exactly right that people don’t think they’re saying anything bad about people with dd when they use the word retarded and that they don’t mean homosexual when they use the word gay. I think it’s exactly like “ewww I’m so fat” when someone fatter than you is standing right next to you.

    So I give people a break most of the time, of course I’m also a huge scaredy cat and hate calling people out on stuff, I def need to grow a spine.

    I’m reminded of a moment in the Sarah Silverman show, which I found mostly un-funny but this was a pretty good insight into the way we use language and curse words:
    Sarah had just called something or someone “gay” and she turned to her two gay friends and said “I don’t mean gay like homosexual, I mean gay like retarded”

  65. I hope you all know me well enough here to know I am not trolling and would never do that–but I am curious about the sensitivity to the word “stupid.” Can we not agree it is better to be intelligent than not? (Personally, I tend to use “willfully stupid,” which gets more at what I wish to convey–someone who could know/do better but is choosing not to.) Are we not all trying, right here and now, to make ourselves smarter? Are there not actions, statements, policies, systems, that can only be adequately described as “stupid”? I can think of examples if anyone would like some … :-)

    What about “unhealthy”? Is using that in a metaphorical sense–an unhealthy relationship, an unhealthy attitude–an insult to those with chronic illnesses?

    What about “ugly”?

    Again, most sincerely *not* trolling–I value this blog as I do few others. I’m trying to find my way on these issues and appreciate your thoughts.

  66. The conversation on the Amptoons thread (which has some spectacular Ablism 101 stuff for anyone who’s interested) got a little bit into the question of “what pejoratives are left to us?” Because honestly, people like me need to be able to say insulting shit about people, and it stands to reason that every insult is offensive to someone, so how do we preserve our right to be non-complimentary?

    I have a tough time with “stupid” too, but not necessarily because I think it’s fundamentally better to be smart than stupid — I do, in a sense, but I also think there are many many ways to be or be considered smart, meaning that it’s hard to even define what smart is, let alone agree that it’s universally desirable. By the same token, though, there are many many ways to be considered stupid, and cognitive disability is only one of them (and not the one I think is most clearly evoked by the word — though that may be because I personally wouldn’t consider people with cognitive disabilities stupid at all — I think the word connotes an element of willful ignorance, or anyway that it doesn’t apply when you simply have different capabilities). I would be disinclined to remove “stupid” from my vocabulary, since I think it serves a purpose and does not specifically target an oppressed group.

    At the same time, though, if someone told me that “stupid” was offensive to them, even just for personal reasons, I wouldn’t use it around them — and if they explained to me why it was offensive to a whole group, it would absolutely be worth it to me to work on changing my language. I’m not so enamored of my right not to find a better word that I’m going to dismiss people’s concerns. I’m sensitive to worries about impoverishing the language, but I don’t think that necessarily results from being conscious of others’ feelings. (In fact, taking away reliable but almost meaningless words like “lame” actually encourages precision.)

    Like I said above — and hey, this is miraculously related to a bit of blog drama we had recently — it’s not that costly to realize that your words or phrasing are potentially hurtful and decide to be conscious of it, even if you didn’t mean it, even if you weren’t aware, even if you had the best of intentions. Granted, it’s harder than saying “oh, the PC police won’t let me talk how I want.” It takes some judgment — making the best choices you can. It takes some willingness to screw up (for all I know, my continuing to say “stupid” will really hurt someone someday). It takes the courage to apologize. But we’re all up for that. (Or anyway, I thought we were.)

  67. Also, in case it’s not perfectly clear: Miss Conduct, I know you’re not a troll OR an anti-PC complainer. In fact we haven’t heard any of either in this thread that I’ve seen, which is awfully heartening. I do think that the sinking “god, am I going to offend someone every time I open my mouth?” feeling is natural and understandable, and it makes sense to try to stake our claims on words we feel are acceptable. But language is never neutral, and you can deal with that either by digging in or by being willing to adapt and, sometimes, apologize.

  68. FJ–Love your second paragraph, totally. The whole thread just really got me to thinking about the extent to which so many negative terms are based–I know another commenter mentioned this, too–on bodily metaphors. I have some reasons for thinking we can’t escape such metaphors entirely, that have to deal with complicated cognitive psych stuff that I can’t really go into right now. And I’m interested in seeing how far people’s feelings about it go, hence my curiosity about “unhealthy” and “ugly.” Or even “that’s a fertile area of research.” (Why yes, I’m at my other job now. The research job.)

    There’s a lot here that’s fascinating to me on an intellectual/theoretical plane … on a pragmatic one, I don’t mind offending someone by what I say, since I say what I believe, but I do try not to offend them by how I say it.

  69. Pam, I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s illness. I’m going to address your questions in the order you asked them.

    Is it ok to say “my sister who has mental retardation”?
    It seemed for a while that developmentally delayed was the acceptable way to describe her but that didn’t make sense, she isn’t going to catch up. Cognitive disability is better because her disability is specifically cognitive, not social.

    When I was a kid 20 years ago, I think “retarded” was a fairly standard term, though “mentally challenged” and “special needs” were starting to be used more frequently. (Of course, this is all seen through my kid-memory filter, so it’s entirely possible I have an inaccurate sense of the timing on this.) I share the same hesitation on the “delay” issue; I fear it suggests something that is unrealistic, but it seems to be used as a diagnostic term these days. When I hear it, I think about kids, not adults, so that’s another association I have. I think saying your sister has cognitive disabilities is probably the most neutral and accurate way to describe her — though some people probably just won’t know what you mean unless you say “she’s retarded.” It’s tricky.

    So sweetmachine, I would love to hear anything you would be willing to share about having a parent with progressive cognitive impairment. Help! What is the best way to present it to my kids?

    I am probably not the best person to ask, because my mom’s impairment didn’t start (or at least didn’t become noticeable to us) until I was about 24 and had been living away from home for years. But I think the advice some people have already given — to be honest, forthright, and fairly positive — is right on. Your kids will *want* to educate themselves on what’s going on with their dad, and they’ll need to know what’s “normal” and what’s “call 911 right now.” They’ll want to know what to expect, and you should tell them. My mother’s condition went undiagnosed for years (mostly because she refused to see a doctor) and required brain surgery — it was very frightening for all of us, including her, but it was way less frightening once we had more information.

    The biggest thing I can tell you from my perspective about what it’s *like* to have a parent with cognitive impairment is that the caretaking roles get all messed up. I’ve never had the kind of “best girlfriend/tell each other everything” relationship with my mom that I know some people have, but I talked to her on the phone a lot, we wrote letters, and she liked to talk with me about my work (I study poetry, and she used to be a big reader). Now she has significant memory loss and aphasia, which make it extremely difficult to carry on a phone conversation (she’s always searching for words, and can’t always keep the thread of a conversation in her head). This means that, since I live so far away, she effectively can’t be “motherly” anymore — she can’t nurture me in a way that I used to really love. When I’m far away from her, it seems to me that her personality has changed, but when I see her in person I realize that it’s not her personality but her ability to communicate verbally. To be honest, this is something that I still find extremely painful and difficult, and I can intellectually assess how I deal with it, but emotionally I’m still in a big muddle.

    I’m rambling at this point, but I just wanted to give you a sense of my experience dealing with this as a youngish adult. It will be more difficult in some ways for your teenage kids, but they’ll get used to it. It will be the new normal for them, but they need information (or at least know that they can come to you for information) to adjust. Talk to them about it — and include your husband in those conversations (or at least some of them).

  70. I don’t mind offending someone by what I say, since I say what I believe, but I do try not to offend them by how I say it.

    Another excellent rubric!

  71. And I’m interested in seeing how far people’s feelings about it go, hence my curiosity about “unhealthy” and “ugly.” Or even “that’s a fertile area of research.” (Why yes, I’m at my other job now. The research job.)

    Yeah, SM and I have been discussing some of this off-thread today too. It can pretty much be an endless discussion, since responses to those words are often very very personal (see above for some recently-approved comments about words like “bitching” and “crazy”). The way the words are used and the way they’re received are both highly individual, which is why being respectful on both sides is probably the only way to navigate it.

    But discussing it is still fun! Personally I find “ugly” to be near-useless when describing someone physically, but useful in describing ideas.

    There’s a lot here that’s fascinating to me on an intellectual/theoretical plane … on a pragmatic one, I don’t mind offending someone by what I say, since I say what I believe, but I do try not to offend them by how I say it.


  72. SweetMachine,
    I just want to say I totally relate to your changing of roles with your mom. It is so hard when you know you can’t turn to that person for comfort anymore. For me it was most marked in that my mom has always been a chatty Cathy, she was full of gossip and pretty much could ramble endlessly for hours. It used to drive me crazy. But right after the stroke you were often lucky to keep her on the phone for more than a minute. Now it varies depending on if she’s having a good day or not. But that was a very very hard change to get used to. And it used to be one of the things that drove me crazy about her. If you had told me a month before that I would cry when my mom got off the phone with me after 2 minutes I would have called you a big liar. But I definetly did, alot.

    I do think though that at some point in most people’s lives they go through this with at least one of their parents. For some of us it is earlier than others. Eventually it is the kids turn to take care of the parents. A few of my friends and I were talking over the weekend ,we have all noticed a marked mental decline in our parents recently. It is hard realizing that you can’t turn to them anymore, and that soon they may be turning to you for help. But it is part of the cycle of life. We’ll get through it.

  73. David Cruz-Uribe, thanks for your perspective — certainly context can have a huge impact on how words register, and I agree that euphemisms (e.g. special) often have pernicious effects. I’m certainly willing to describe my brother, neutrally, as retarded; what I’m not cool with is using “retarded” to mean “bad” or “uncool.”

    weary, thanks for your perspective on the word “bitch.” I tend to think of “bitch” as a word that has been reclaimed by feminists, but that doesn’t mean that it’s neutral or that it is not a trigger, and I appreciate the reminder.

  74. I’m afraid I don’t have time to read all the comments right now…I will try to return later. But I wanted to share a story, too:

    My 15-year-old brother was diagnosed with ADHD, apparently a rather “controversial” disorder, about three years ago. He underwent rigorous diagnostic testing, and was seen by several doctors, and this was the consistent diagnosis.

    Anyway, after our mother considered the issue VERY carefully (with his input), he was put on a low dose of Adderol. With this, in combination with tutoring and some therapy, my brother has learned to adapt to his particular brain chemistry. His grades went from almost failing to honor roll within a semester, his behavior problems are almost nonexistent (well, no more than you’d expect from a teenage boy anyways), and his family relations have improved.

    A year ago or so, we (my mother, bro, sis, and I) went on a Christmas cruise, where we made friends with another family (mom, dad, and twentyish son) through group trivia. The parents made no secret about how amazing they thought we all were–well-behaved, interacted well together, no fighting, humourous, etc. etc. What can I say, we are a fun family to hang out with. ;)

    Anyways, the father decided to use our apparently exemplary behavior one day to launch into a tirade about what crap ADD/ADHD was, and how all these kids are being medicated for no reason, and how it was all just an excuse for crappy, lazy parents who don’t want to take responsibility for disciplining their children.

    There was an obvious, awkward silence amongst my family. You know, the sort of hesitant smiles, the “yeah, ok,” and then quick change of subject. I talked to my brother later about it, and he was visibly upset, but trying to do the whole repressing, “it was no big deal, it’s ok” thing, trying to excuse this idiot’s loud mouth. He’s always been a peacemaker.

    Ever since that day, I stew about all the things I could have–all the things I SHOULD have said. To let that jerk know that maybe he shouldn’t be holding such strong opinions about things which he obviously has no information about or personal experience with. It enrages me because I think of how I allowed him to get off scot-free with his ignorant opinions. I mean, maybe if I’d said something, he would have just brushed it off, but MAYBE it would have made him think more. At the very least, maybe it would have made him feel ashamed to have insulted my mother, and brother, so.

    Anger, anger, anger…..

  75. Jason, that story makes me so angry; it’s so hard to figure out what to do in that kind of situation. I’m really heartened by the response you got by the Outback corporate people. Thanks for your story.

  76. It makes me wish Outback had more food I liked to eat, so I could give them my business. :)

  77. My elder brother has moderate to severe mental handicap and behavioural difficulties.

    People often seem offended if I say that in those terms. It’s okay to call him ‘slow’ or ‘special needs’. It’s even okay to say ‘he has a mental age of x’. But to say he is mentally handicapped is somehow considered an insult. How can I say that about my own brother?

    I can say it because it’s true. ‘Special needs’ doesn’t mean anything. If I say he’s got special needs that could be partial sight or dyslexia or a peanut allergy. ‘Retarded’ doesn’t bother me in the least if it’s used in its proper sense for the same reason that ‘tall’ doesn’t bother me. An accurate description is not an insult.

  78. An accurate description is not an insult.

    Froth, I totally agree with you, and that’s one of the tenets of fat acceptance as practiced on this blog. I generally say “disabled” or “has cognitive disabilities” rather than “retarded” because my understanding is that it’s more current and it also doesn’t trigger painful memories for me.

  79. Jason –
    That’s a terrible story, I’m really sorry you had to experience that.

    My older sister J took my youngest sister K, who is autistic, to get a haircut once. (I call her my youngest sister because I have four sisters, three of whom are younger than me.) Anyway, they were waiting for K’s turn when some woman came in with a meal from Burger King, which she was eating in the waiting area. Now, K thinks it’s funny to pretend to grab food (she saw it in the Spiderman movie). J knows this, so she was carefully keeping K away from this woman, but she also had my niece with her, and my niece is only 4 and can be a handful. So J got distracted and K ran over and pretended to grab this woman’s food (she did NOT actually touch anything, she just likes to pretend). I shit you not, this woman slapped her. Just hauled off and slapped her, in the middle of the hair salon. I wasn’t there, but I’m told that J’s rage was a thing of beauty. It’s just unbelievable to me that people can be so casually cruel to people with disabilities.

    And to tie this back in to the original subject of the post, that’s at least part of why I have erased “retarded” as a pejorative from my vocabulary, and am trying (with somewhat limited success, as noted above) to do the same with “lame.” That kind of language just helps foster an environment where the disabled are othered and disregarded, and that leads to cruelty.

  80. I have to confess that 1. I myself sometimes slip and say that something or someone is retarded when it or she is not and 2. I don’t always say something when others use the word retarded as a generic insult.

    I used to use it quite frequently when I was younger (all the way until the middle of high school) until a co-worker at a summer job caught me and scolded me, as her brother was mentally retarded, and she didn’t appreciate me using the word as an insult. That really jarred me, and I won’t forget it, even over a decade later.

    Unfortunately, unless you are the sibling of someone with a disability, it’s hard to enforce such things without seeming to be a vocabulary nazi or overly politically correct.

    It’s a tough situation.

  81. OMG Colleen, your story made me gasp and startle my cat (who is sitting on my lap). That is unbelievable that a grown woman would slap your sister. I’m so sorry that happened.

    I think a lot of people think this kind of stuff only happens on the playground, but it is amazing how horrible adults can be to people with disabilities. That kind of act is so clearly a result of the dehumanization of disability in our culture.

  82. sweetmachine, when J told me that story, I didn’t believe her at first. When she clarified that, no, this had actually happened, I was so upset I was literally shaking. It’s probably good that I wasn’t there, because I honestly think I would have lost it; J is much more level-headed than I am. She and I also had a big discussion about whether or not she should have called the police. I still don’t know if I think she should have. I mean, in a legal sense that woman committed battery on a disabled child, but at the same time, would the cops have taken it seriously? I really don’t know.

  83. I usually lurk (and love reading Shapely Prose and feel like I don’t have anything terribly relevant to say), but felt moved to comment, partly because I just had an unpleasant experience today related to this subject and second, because I was moved by Pam’s question above..

    For Pam,
    “So sweetmachine, I would love to hear anything you would be willing to share about having a parent with progressive cognitive impairment. Help! What is the best way to present it to my kids?”

    I’m not sweetmachine (obviously), but when I was about 13 my stepfather was diagnosed with schizophrenia. (This was after about a year or so of WTF behavior that we lived with while my mom went to college at night, bless her.) It was hard – you’re young and you want the daddy and blah blah. You don’t know really need the psychobabble on this one, but I was trying to be a teenager with my usual teenager angst through the first year or so of living with this and my mom just sat me down and said, “I can’t handle him and you.” And then had a total breakdown on me. I still remember that day in the car..

    My point, Pam, is that you need to be honest with your kids. This is going to be a hard thing for you, and you need all the support and help you can get from your kids. They need to understand your reality. I admit (and my mom will, too) that I had to grow up very quickly and learn how to be a caregiver. But 20 years on, my mom is my best friend, and (particularly as I get older) I feel very fortunate that I could then – and can still – continue to help her and my stepdad.

    As to the topic at hand, because my stepdad is schizophrenic, I’m very sensitive to all the jokes people like to make. First, they always confuse schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder and second off, most folks think it’s totally OK to toss out a “schizo” term. Trust me, ain’t nothing funny about schizophrenia.

    And in fact, I had to bust a senior manager at my job on this very subject today (and he doesn’t like to be busted. But I find it aggravating because I’ve always been very transparent about this with my supervisors and I’ve worked here for 10 years, for feck’s sake, because I never know when I’ll need to go at short notice to help out/stay with him when my mom has to go out of town/help because he’s having a psychotic episode, etc.)

    I find it astonishing the things people will say sometimes..

  84. Also someone trying very hard to erase the word from my vocabulary – but as someone who grew up in Boston in the 80s, it’s proving difficult, as that was the standard pejorative for any situation. But I recognize it’s not OK and never was.

    No one ever talked to us as children about appropriate language, other than to explain the the f-word would result in a mouthful of soap. I would hope that has changed…

  85. Re: Stupid as an insult. I use the word stupid sometimes to describe situations or whatever, but for people I prefer “ignorant”. As for this: ” Can we not agree it is better to be intelligent than not?” No, I don’t think we can. I don’t want to get into a whole debate over what intelligence is and what it means and how malleable it is because I don’t think there are clear answers to those questions. But I want to tell a story.

    When I was in high school, I was in all AP (Advanced Placement) classes. Which meant I was in classes with a bunch of intelligent people, and to be frank, most of them were assholes. (Well, let’s be truthful… most of us were assholes. My assholeishness came mostly in the form of being disrespectful to teachers. Which I am deeply ashamed of now.) We were more or less the most intelligent 30 students in a class of 700 and we knew it. And that made a lot of people in the class think they were better than everybody else in the school. One day, I was walking to class with some of those people, and we were walking by some other students who were headed toward another class, which was part of the “non-academic” stream. (For students who didn’t have special needs but were not university-bound). The people I was with started making fun of how stupid those students were and how they had no future and blah blah blah. It really upset me because two of my best friends were in that class. One of them was really not what most people would call smart (the other was smart but she was not academically motivated) but you know, they were two of the sweetest, most caring girls I have met then or since. And my one friend who most people might meet and consider “stupid” was so artistically gifted, she is an amazing singer and actress. If I’d had any courage at all, I would have stood up to my classmates and said: “You may be smarter than those people, but that doesn’t make you better. Some of them are better people than you could ever dream of being”. So, I’m not really fond of stupid being applied as an insult when it comes to people, and I’m really bothered when I see people looking down on others for being less intelligent, or for working as secretaries or construction workers or what have you, because intelligence isn’t a marker of human worth anymore than appearance is. And everyone contributes to the world in their own way. (Incidentally, that’s why I was about ready to quit reading Pandagon even before this latest Amanda Marcotte scandal, I see a lot of snobbery and mockery from her and her commenters and it makes me very uncomfortable.)

    Turns out I’m passionate about this, heh.

  86. What to do about words like queer, which have legitimate other meanings, meanings which preceded the current meaning of homosexual? I read a lot of old books, and queer’s older meanings of strange/odd/different come to my mind much more quickly than homosexual. Gay too has a sweet old-fashioned meaning of happy, rarely as that’s used nowadays, it’s more appropriated to the newer meanings than queer, I think. Do we just give up on the older meanings, and let them flow off into time? Or should we reclaim them?

  87. Well, Piffle, “queer” has already been reclaimed by people who identify as queer, so I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking. Do you mean can we use “queer” and “gay” just to mean “odd” or “cheery”? I don’t think so — that ship sailed a long time ago. But that’s okay — we have plenty of other fine words to describe those ideas, and meanwhile, people who have been oppressed get to take something that has been used to dehumanize them and reclaim it to mean something positive. That’s pretty win-win, IMO.

  88. I don’t use the word either, the only time I use it is when I write about the damned word. Anyone over 4 knows that calling names is wrong. So get it and then stop it.

  89. Thank you for this post.

    I discovered I was using “your mom” as a comeback an awful lot – as well as “your mom’s house” “your mom’s keys” ” your mom’s dog”. And when I pulled a “your mom” to one of my coworkers who lost her mom, I blink blink blinked my eyes in recognition and stuttered out an apology. Just about anything can be hurtful.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  90. Alyce, it’s true that in certain circumstances, any number of things can be hurtful to individuals, and we should be aware and respectful of that. I do think that some things are more pernicious by virtue of invoking normative paradigms that are oppressive (ableism, sexism, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, etc). For me, negotiating tricky language is about respecting individuals, but it’s also about examining that underlying paradigm.

  91. I just want to give a big general “Thank you” to all the Shapelings who’ve commented on this post — it’s very personal for me and I was slightly hesitant when I first posted. So thanks for engaging in a great conversation.

  92. I’ve been thinking about this all day, because I use “lame” quite often. As a replacement I’m going to use “tepid”–as it, it’s not cool, and it’s not hot.

    Ok, maybe it’s a la–tepid word. But I think it’ll work :P

  93. aproustian, FJ and I have a long-running joke about how we’re going to replace the words “gay” and “retarded” with “inverted” and “gentle,” respectively. Ideally, it would work as enough of a shock to the ears that it would actually make people think about the words they say. We mostly only do it with each other, though — I haven’t tried it in real life yet!

    I do like “tepid,” though. :-) And “lame” is the main word I need to work on right now, too.

  94. I want to offer my opinion on the disability metaphor, and want to say right away that I respect everyone’s views, but have my own which differs a little. This is not an attempt to troll or belittle people for whom certain words are triggering, as in Sweet Machine’s case. (Love ya Sweet Machine!)

    I’m very fat (300 lbs), I’m crazy,I’m asthmatic, I have spinal/muscular problems that are making me somewhat crippled. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things. There is nothing wrong with *me*. Those labels can’t make what I am wrong. To object to my use of the words is to give them power that they do not inherently possess. To object to those is to assume and imply that there IS something wrong with me. They are just words.

    In English, many words have multiple and wildly unrelated meanings which evolve over time. I have had many blind friends in my life, and none of them has ever expressed discomfort of any kind when I said, “Do you see what I’m saying…or…it took Marty awhile to see that joke, but when he did he laughed really hard…or…the See of Rome.” I’m not mocking blindness or using a metaphor that is meant to*or does* insult or belittle disabled people. I’ll go as far as to say that someone who did take offense is deliberately misconstruing my meaning to invent an insult that was not present. Again, I am not talking about triggering words as they apply to individuals. When I say “see” I’m using a word that has multiple and perfectly detectable different meanings. Some people get embarrassed when they “slip up” in this way when talking to blind people. Some of my blind friends have constantly reassured people that it is alright to say the word “see” around them, while others just let the speaker squirm. Fair enough! :)

    When I say a joke or movie was lame, I am NOT insulting lame people. I am not drawing on a social discourse that stigmatizes disability. I am using an alternate meaning of the word lame. Regardless of it’s original derivation, it no longer draws on a metaphor of disablility. It just means “not entertaining.”

    Words like “retard” or “gay” or “crazy” or “negro” ARE still drawing on stigmatizing metaphors, and are more problematic. They are closer to their derivation point. That said, I still think as a member of stigmatized groups that it is important to unpack the word and reclaim it, just as many of us have done with fat.

    As a psychiatric social worker, I sometimes have the opportunity to answer the question, “Am I crazy?” We unpack the connotations. I say, “Well, if you mean morally weak, then no. And if you mean bad, then no. Or if you mean incompetent, then no. Or if you mean automatically dangerous, then no. It’s just an illness that your body has that trauma might have made worse. I’ts just an illness. There’s nothing wrong with you, you just have an illness like epilepsy or asthma. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve it. You are still the same you, with some really bad luck to adjust to, which takes time.” And I point out that crazy can also mean joyous, or creative, or courageous, any of which you may well be.

    I must say that my job has become more difficult in this regard because of increased moralizing of health. I used to say heart disease or diabetes or cancer as well, but these are now widely seen (WRONGLY!!!) as lifestyle choices.

    I hope I made my point without offending anyone. :)

    I hasten to add that it is not only understandable but healthy and respectful to alert friends/family/coworkers and others you interact with when a word or phrase not meant to offend triggers distressing thoughts or memories for you. A physical example: a coworker grabbed my wrist playfully, but I have PTSD and it gave me a doozy of a flashback. Telling her that I had bad memories associated with the gesture was no big deal and she apologized, which was kind and thoughtful but unnecessary. She had no intention of upsetting me, and it is okay to step back and recognize that it wasn’t personal. As the triggered party, it was my job and my choice how to take it in the larger context, no matter how upsetting the flashback was. Sweet Machine and several others gave great examples of how to gracefully accept the intention while setting firm personal boundaries. So I accept that the individual experience of hearing words or phrases that call forth disability metaphors can be distressing, but urge people to focus on intent and alternative word meanings.

  95. Mary, I see where you’re coming from and I don’t think you’re trolling! I have definitely talked to people with mobility issues who have been on the clinical end of a word like “lame,” so I think that particular one is partly a regional thing.

    To object to my use of the words is to give them power that they do not inherently possess. To object to those is to assume and imply that there IS something wrong with me. They are just words.

    I understand the logic behind this, but I respectfully disagree with the premise. Words have tremendous social power, but no words “inherently” have power. All words have power through their social uses. And just as the generic insult “gay” depends on an automatic and unconscious understanding that “homosexuality” = bad, the insult “retarded” is premised on the assumption that “cognitive disability” = bad. What’s more, casual use of this slang reinforces that framework. To my mind, that’s dehumanizing, and it’s not because those that are offended grant words power on their listening; it’s because the words tap into a power structure that’s already in place, and they reinforce that power structure.

    Like I said, it sounds like you and I disagree on the philosophical framework behind this, but I appreciate your entering the conversation in good faith despite that.

  96. Thank you for writing this.

    Since working with visually-impaired people, I’ve become senstive to the word “blind” used as meaning something like clueless.

    BTW, I have a friend whose 42-year old son has William’s Syndrome and your brother seems to have traits in common.

  97. English isn’t my first language, but we sure had our share of insults of that type… Most common was “mongo” for Down’s or “CP” for Cerebral Palsy.

    I remember when my mother told me not to use CP in that way – and I was confused, because I was sure that the “seepy” used as an insult was a different word from the CP that one of our neighbours had. Once I understood, I stopped using them. I’m not sure how many kids used those words without knowing why they were considered insulting.

    Just a couple of weeks ago, one of my coworkers during a meeting said that “well, they might do , but it would be completely CP of them”. At which point I stared, asked him to repeat himself, and then told him that the rest of us had outgrown using illnesses or disabilities as insults and that it would be nice if he’d follow us asap.

    And yes, I trembled a bit, and have been wondering whether he’d be upset and come to dislike me. This fear of being disliked is, I think, what most often keeps us back. It’s the same thing with homophobic slurs – I’m bisexual but in an opposite-sex relationship, so people tend to assume I’m straight. And I keep having to decide whether to call them on heterosexist bullshit or not.

  98. Becky – re: your comments about “intelligent” not necessarily being better…I absolutely agree with you. I too was in the AP classes, and it was clear to me that we were no better and often worse than the “non-academic” track kids. What really pissed me off was that if you got good grades and did “activities”, you could get in the Honor Society, and if you were in the Honor Society, you could get extra privileges that other kids could not. I knew kids who used their privileges to skip school and do pretty “dishonorable” things. I liked to fancy myself a rebel in those days, and when some teachers tried to get me to join the Honor Society, I refused on the grounds that it was elitist and hypocritical. Other teachers and one guidance counselor thanked me for taking this stand, but my friends who were in the Honor Society thought I was being ridiculous.

    This very blog called me out on the use of the word “fucktard”. I hadn’t even made the connection with retard before, and I was completely mortified. I’ve known many developmentally disabled people; the vast majority were absolutely lovely, and I might even say honorable.

  99. In Hebrew the word “mefager” which I suppose is the equivalent of retarded is often used as an insult, and is the term used to describe those with developmental disablilities. And while I have attempted to remove the word retarded from my vocabulary I never thought to remove the Hebrew equivalent from my vocab. Obviously, I will make a concious effort from now on.

    In high school I often used the word retarded and a girl called me out on it once. I got extremely defensive. And for many years (in fact, until about a few years ago) I continued to use that word with the excuse that retard was no longer used as a term to describe the developmentally disabled, and that I would never use the word retarded to label someone with an actual disablility. And while I never have, I never took the time to think about how the word retarded made other people feel and the negative connotations behind it. However, as a queer person I became very sensitive to the use of the word gay as an insult and that opened my eyes to the similar use of the word retarded. And while occasionally it slips out, (pretty rarely) I make a concerted effort not to use it.

    Thank-you so much for your post, you have increased my understanding of why this term is so hurtful.

  100. I’m inept, often. When I was posting about reclaiming gay and queer, I only meant from their insult status and to re-add their original meanings to their new meaning of homosexual. I’d love it, if when people heard the phrase “gay old time” they pictured a happy carefree same sex couple. Queer is more problematic, I certainly don’t want people thinking gays are strange or odd simply for being gay. But words often have completely different and separate meanings. It’s often amused me that cleave is its own opposite for instance.

    If you need to insult someone, I’d suggest words that use stuff that are inherently bad for people. Vermin, pest, plague, lower than a snakes belly, etc.

  101. Thanks for this post, sweetmachine. I suspect many people don’t ever stop and think about this, but it’s good to see, from this discussion, that some do.

    Re actual words, ‘retarded’ was for a long time in the UK, before it became accepted that it wasn’t appropriate, the general term for someone who would now be described as having a developmental or learning disability. I never heard kids use it as an insult in the US sense, really. ‘Mong’ (from ‘mongoloid’, again, the much-used then but now discarded term for Down’s syndrome) and especially, ‘spastic’ and its variants were very much more common when I was at school.

    I remember the latter with some pain. At age siz or so, my teachers were totally e

    The other kids – about eight in all, I think – had, some of them, severe learning difficulties and were in the class permanently; I was the only one to be there temporarily, and when I was put back in regular classes I got shunned by the other kids for having been in the ‘spastics’ class’.

    I had difficulty concentrating in class and was easily bored, but it was usually because I’d finished stuff ahead of the other kids. Plus, I had extreme problems, right through my teens, with social interaction, and have had several

  102. Sorry. Managed to press ‘submit’ too quickly there when I was still reshuffling my words…I hope at least part of that made sense. Age six, put in remedial class, was the basic gist of the story.

    Many years on, I now suspect that I may always have been not quite neurotypical, and maybe that would have benefited from closer investigation. But, that wasn’t what happened. And the idea of real integration for those of differing abilities in British schools was unheard of then – that was why the remedial kids were kept separate, because they wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in a regular classroom, such was the nastiness of the pupils towards anyone ‘different’. Taking me out of class in the first place may, in those circumstances, have been a good thing, but putting me back afterwards ruined my school life for years. So, bearing that in mind, I cringe if I ever hear anyone use the s-word – which isn’t often these days, but it does still happen.

    Lindsay, your nuns were absolutely right. ‘Fuck’ comes from an old French word meaning ‘to batter’. When you think of the way the word ‘fucked’ in reference to an object can mean ‘ruined’, and of the sexual connotations that word had for women in the 19th century, you realize there’s a whole series of assumptions involved about violence, sex, and the equation of virginity with integrity and wholeness. Fascinating and a little creepy.

  103. Today’s example from the tubes: a headline on BoingBoing today says “Gabe (of “Gabe and Max”) takes on YouTubeTards.” I don’t know if “tards” is also on the video, because I refuse to watch it. But BoingBoing can fuck the hell off.

  104. This post really made me think of the way I use language. I’ve often engaged in conversations where we have used a lot of ableist language, and now I feel very ashamed of it. Well, I’ve felt ashamed of it for some time, but this post and the comments to it opened my eyes further to how hurtful it is, and how important it is that I stop doing it.

    A close friend of mine has a boyfriend who has a sister with Down’s Syndrome. She’s very into gay rights. So they have lots of discussions about her use of “mongo” and “retarded” and his use of “gay” as insults.

    Also, here in Norway we have plenty of ableist language, unfortunately: mongo, retardert, tilbakestående (which means retarded), dust/idiot, gærning/galning (crazy person), sprø (nuts), these are just some of them. Ableism is international and rampant, it seems. :/

  105. “And the idea of real integration for those of differing abilities in British schools was unheard of then – that was why the remedial kids were kept separate, because they wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in a regular classroom, such was the nastiness of the pupils towards anyone ‘different’.” – Emerald.

    Too right. I came at the problem from the other direction and got myself moved up a year for being too clever. Then I spent every day for three and a half years in the company of a thousand people who hated my guts. It was not pleasant.

  106. I work alongside people who have learning disabilities, and my cousin has a learning disability, and I absolutely hate the word ‘retarded’. Hell, I hate the word ‘disability’ but can’t suggest anything better.

    Can I suggest that we also dump the word ‘special’ when talking about people who have learning disabilities? It’s patronising and demeaning – people with learning disabilities are humans with individual gifts, abilities, aspirations and all the stuff that being human brings. Which makes them no more or less noble / happy / kind / warm / lovely / easy to please than anyone without a learning disability.

  107. I recently read somewhere that it’s not so hard to speak truth to power — it’s much harder to speak truth to your friends. Thanks for this post.

  108. This reminds me of an experience I had at Disneyworld. I rented an EVC, yes I know there are alot of people who dislike “fakers” and assume they can tell someone is disabled by just looking at them. I’d like to see them walk in 80 plus degree weather all day without feeling like they’re gonna pass out.

    I didn’t realize how horrible it felt to be disabled. I mean I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and have always felt like something of a freak for that. However, I realized when you’re disabled you’re seen as a burden. Either you’re treated like you’re invisible, or treated like your being a bother to others. I had to stop using the EVC, cause I felt like I was being bullied like I was back in high school by people.

    Alot of people, including myself, naively belive that people treat those who are handicapped nicely, understanding their trouble. The opposite is true. It’s like, having to find out the human race is even more crappy to it’s own than you thought before. I would’ve been crying, if I wasn’t fortunetly in The Living Seas. They play soothing new agey sorts of music by the aquarium, which helped calm me down.

    So yeah, I learned that I really had no idea what suffering is, what being treated like less than human is. It’s like, that day I felt like I had really had a foot in mouth moment. Or maybe like in the cartoons, where the character turns into a donkey.

    It’s not all bad though. I’m not sure if you get those ads from the Foundation for Better Living. They have one where they announce the prom queen, and she’s a girl with Down’s Syndrome, and it says something about True Beauty.

    I agree with Curvygirl about the word special. Actually as someone with a learning disability, I generally felt most of the problems I had in school, were that the people working with special needs kids felt it was reasonable to talk down to them like they were 2 year olds. You know, you have a problem with a bully, well you must’ve been a naughty little child, you have to learn to play well with others. No validity given at all towards the idea that the bully was the one instigating things.

    I think alot of people’s behaviour to those not just with learning disabilities, but any uniqueness at all is treated like a kid. I have Hyperacusis, a sensitivity to sudden loud noises. If I explain to someone who has small children that I’d perfer they sit somewhere else and why, I get these responses:

    1. Well what do YOU know, your not a parent!

    2. You must HATE kids!

    Then of course, treated like a bratty child myself. Since I usually get this attitude from over-authoritarian types of parents, who I suppose take it as a personal insult that someone who appears like a child, is speaking up to them. Another thing about learning disability people, is we look younger than we are. I don’t know if it’s not dressing in a fashionable way, cause at least for me, I feel I have better things to do with my time than keep up with fashion. Or for girls not wearing makeup. So people think they’re talking to someone about 13. At least that’s my experience and I’m 26. I feel at least, I can hope this lasts me to where when I’m older I’ll be envied cause everyone will wonder how I can look so young.

    It’s difficult really to deal with an issues of being discriminated, either from being fat, learning disabled, disabled, or whatever. So I think I’m finished with what I have to say on the subject, even though it turned out to be more of a rant really.

  109. Good for you. I work with Developmentally Delayed adults (which is at least a less offensive term) and sometimes I juat want to scream with frustration at the way my clients are treated.

    One thing that bugs me that I don’t think everyone thinks about is that just because you’re developementally delayed doesn’t mean you are a nice person. It doesn’t mean you’re mean or kind or caring or uncaring. It doesn’t necessarily affect your personality at all. My clients are individuals! Some of them are people I like, and some of them aren’t, and there is nothing wrong with that. It would be condescending of me to assume that just because they’re disabled they are all the same person. I take them individually, on their own merits, and I hope that this makes people think twice about casting afog of assumption over anyone based on their ability or lack thereof.

  110. THANK YOU!!!! I am a mom of 2 kids, both with Autism. My daughter, who is 4, may possibly have some degree of mental retardation as well, according to her teachers. It doesn’t stop BOTH of my kids from being kind, sweet, loving, curious, energetic, stubborn, and filled with attitude! Everyone who meets them adores them. I don’t know what life will be like for them as they get older, but I pray that we will have more understanding and sensitivity, and that people won’t be afraid of them or make fun of them.

  111. Hey, love the blog but I’ve never commented before!Wow, this post made so much sense, I’ve spent the past year trying to get words like this out of my vocabulary. As to the question about these words being used in other countries, in Norway (where I grew up), it’s really common especially among teenage boys. They often use the word ‘mongo’, derived from mongoloid and also ‘hema’, derived from ‘utviklingshemmet’ (which basically means ‘developmentally-retarded’). What’s really upsetting is that they often make stupid faces while they say it, it’s pretty horrible. Great post though, I think it’s really important to draw attention to this.

  112. Thanks for this post, sweetmachine.

    it resonated on a whole bunch of levels. I’ve got better at calling people out when they use terms that insult or trigger or hurt me (often without their knowledge), but it’s still difficult, especially since I run the gamut of things that I could, and probably should, call people out on. Just like a lot of people, really. Six of my list:

    1. I’m deaf, which means that hearing or seeing ‘dumb’, especially in its context as ‘deaf and dumb’, a medical-term-turned-perjorative against deaf people, hurts me just as ‘retarded’ hurts you.

    2. I’m hyperlexic but I often find that I can’t read for a) cognitive reasons and b) just not being able to see the words; I keep my text sizes in browsers blown up to size 22, 24, and being asked ‘can’t you read?’ with the assumption that I lack the ability to learn how in the first place hurts me.

    3. I have severe photophobia and wear sunglasses that block out all but ten percent of the visible light spectrum, and when I go out I am assumed to be blind and unable to see that others stare and whisper about me when I fumble against bright lights and glare, and it hurts me.

    4. I’ve been depressed and suicidal for over a decade, and to hear people talking about ‘pyscho’ people and calling themselves ‘crazy’ or talking about how ‘pills are just an excuse’ and ‘suicide is just the easy way out’ hurts me.

    5. I’m a teenager, and to hear people dismiss me and others of my age group as ‘just another ball of angst’ ‘ungrateful brats’, ‘a fourteen-year-old girl’, hurts me, and is the reason why I have not commented on any single blog, ever, until a few months before I turned eighteen (in February), because I ran into this everywhere I went for seven years and people wouldn’t talk to me, would shut down their conversations as soon as they discovered my age, would tell me to go outside and play, to grow up. I ran into it on this blog last week and had to take it off my reading list for a few days.

    6. I’m a high-school dropout for medical reasons, and to be dismissed as ‘lazy’ and ‘a burden to society’ and ‘wasted potential’ because of it hurts me.

    All of this is is about unexamined privilege: hearing privilege, class privilege, educational privilege, able-bodied privilege, adult privilege, mental health privilege. The privilege of assuming that because people aren’t Exactly Like You, there is something wrong with them. The privilege of assuming they are dumb deaf stupid lying crazy blind psycho retarded stupid ugly spazzing out lazy waste of space malingering trash, which goes hand in hand with the privilege of having the weight of history, culture and society back you up in everything you say and do.

    May I suggest ‘willfully ignorant’/’willful ignorance’ as an alternative to Miss Conduct’s ‘willfully stupid’/’willful stupidity’? I feel it communicates more clearly.

    (This is probably the best place to note that your particular layout, while being one I find particularly good for my brand of much-needed accessibility et al, does have a particular bug in Firefox: the right side of the main text box goes under the right column, and it gets worse the more the text is magnified. Try Ctrl+ and see.

    Everything else is fine — it’s only the main text box, and it only seems to be a problem in Firefox. Opera handles it just fine in that I can press 0 to zoom and F+13 to fit the page to my screen width. I’m not particularly sure what can be done about the bug, myself, I’m just saying it’s there.)

  113. Er, allow me to correct myself: it is in fact a problem with all four text boxes at larger sizes than the one I’m currently using. The posts themselves adjust to text size, but the text entry boxes don’t. I’m assuming some kind of fixed width or fixed percentage coding thing.

  114. I hate when my friends say these words too, but everyone says I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Now I can think back to this post and all these comments and know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

    Also, there are some words that I have been using and had no idea that they were bad. Sometimes people just don’t know its offensive. We just see other people talking and monkey see monkey do

  115. Ok, my story, I have panic disorder and anxiety, and I dunno maybe I am more cautious than the average person, but my friends and family always tease me about freaking out all the time and being a chicken. They don’t understand that my mind and body is reacting to something in the same way theirs would react to actual danger. I guess this isn’t really about a certain word, but about the way people do not understand conditions, so then they just make fun of you.

  116. I understand how you feel Kay, I don’t have panic disorder, but if something freaks me out I will have a panic attack..or perhaps the more proper term is anxiety attack. Since panic attacks come out of nowhere, and anxiety attacks have something that causes them.

    I am not sure if you’re a fan of horror films. I would reccomend you watch the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The dinner scene where this girl is tied up and these guys are making fun of her being frightened, you can show that to people who tease you about being scared and say “Look, it feels just like this. I am not exaggerating, do you think that’s funny?”

    Actually I feel that horror films in some strange way, has helped me feel better about my anxiety attacks cause it reminds me I’m not being overreactional given how my mind is processing things. Yes, for example I know acting like someone frightened in a horror film is overreactionary in most cases, but it reminds me that I’m not weird for reacting like that when I’m truely that frightened. If that makes sense.

    I think it seems our society has become one that tries to rid of emotions. Like, having to deal with other people’s emotions are seen more as a burden than being caring. I think that’s why I had cut myself as a teen, cause everyone would tell me “Stop crying it’s no big deal” So I cried by cutting myself instead.

    People need to understand that having emotions, doesn’t mean someone’s a freak, it means they’re human. Certianly there are situations where psychoanalytical drugs are needed for emotional issues. Like I used to be really really depressed, I even was a Goth. However, using psychoanalytical drugs to try and make someone an emotional zombie, isn’t cool at all.

    Yet it’s like whenever anyone gets emotional about something, they’re told to just get over it. That expressing emotion isn’t seen as healthy anymore, it’s more about being perfect little miss sunshine 24/7. I think that’s why people like us who to most might be more emotionally oversensitive have problems.

    Recently I’ve decided though that it’s not that we’re oversensitive, it’s that most people are undersensitive.

  117. How is ‘lame’ still considered a ‘disablist’ word? I have never, ever in my entire life hear anyone refer to a disabled person as ‘lame’. I have only ever heard it used to refer to something as being ‘uncool’. My brother has CP and two of my cousins have forms of autism so while I’ve heard disparaging words in reference to disability, ‘lame’ has certainly never been one of them. That seems like an antiquated meaning of the word and, if so, why is it disparaging to say that about something that’s ‘uncool’? The same with ‘dumb’ meaning ‘unable to speak’. If that meaning is antiquated and has not be used to refer to deaf people in quite some time, why is it offensive to use it?

    And also, if someone asks that I not use those words in their presence, how much of a horrible person does it make me if I disagree on the word but respect their request then use the world elsewhere not in their presence?

  118. Kay, I just wanted to post here about another experience I had with a doctor about my anxiety issues. So my mom calls her, cause I don’t know I’m just not good on the phone, maybe it’s the Asperger’s Syndrome. She asks the nurse to speak to the doctor. She gets a call later, the nurse says the doctor said the doctor would have to talk to me personally.

    So I explained to my mom it sounded more like the nurse trying to cop-out on getting the doctor, cause that might require her to actually do her job. This is another reason why I don’t talk on the phone, cause I wouldn’t put up with that and perhaps because I’m female if I stood my ground and said I need to speak to the doctor now, I’d be considered a b**h.

    So now my mom is going to try calling the doctor again, explaining that I have anxiety issues. No that does not mean I need to be treated like a 10 year old. If I get upset, or yell I don’t want to do something it doesn’t mean I’m being a pretentious brat, it means back off.

    I just thought I’d share this with you Kay, cause I think you would relate to it. It is amazing how anyone with even a minor difference, means they’re being a problem for someone else. It’s like I didn’t choose to have anxiety issues, or issues of mistrust from past doctor/dentist experiences. Like you didn’t choose to have panic attack. It’s like I want to yell, “DON’T YOU THINK IF I COULD CONTROL THIS I WOULD!”

    No, as always the easiest answer is to take some Diazapam before I go, cause if I’m sedated into a state of complacency that just makes everyone happy, even if it’s sublimating my will..or it makes it hard for the doctor to understand what no means.

    Now I’m upset, my mom feels that saying she’ll take care of it is what will make me not upset. It’s not that I’m even upset about this particular situation. It’s like, every freaking time, having to explain this to people like they’re 2 year olds.

    Having to explain yes this is a real problem, no I don’t appear like someone who is learning disabled, that does not mean I struggle any less than someone who looks disabled. It’s a form of discrimination called Lookism, the assumption that you can tell who someone is just by looking at them.

    It’s frustrating, cause I’ve been sick of being treated like a baby since I entered Special Ed, and I’m sick of it now. I’m 26 years old, oh but if I have an anxiety problem well then I’m just a big crybaby, who needs to be told they’ll get a wollipop afterwards if they act like a big girl. I mean there are people who really have infantilized me to the point where I’ve wanted to tell them where they can stick their wollipop.

    I think I feel better now that I’ve vented. It’s beyond me, it really is. Sometimes I feel like why bother giving a damn. Nobody else gives a damn, and they seem to get through life just fine. It’d be nice to take a vacation from this. From people over and over again assuming I’m trying to get attention, or I’m being manipulative over something I cannot control.

    They don’t know how many times I’ve cried cause I’ve felt like I’m burdening others with my problems, while they could care less about my exsistance. You know I could be a total b**h about this, and I think perhaps I wouldn’t blame myself for it. I’m not. I constantly feel like when I’m dealing with people like the nurse at the doctors, like I’m dealing with adults who act like small children all the time.

    That nurse probably doesn’t care at all if I was upset, she’s more concerned about sitting on her butt and not doing her job. Gee, it must be wonderful to be so selfish and uncaring. It must be easy to get through life, without concering yourself with anyone but you you you. I could talk to my psychatrist about this, but he’d probably tell me just to chill out, which I can’t blame him. I mean, it’s not like he can give me more Zoloft without it turning me into a quasi-zombie.

    And of course I’m going to feel like, I’m a freak, I’m getting upset over nothing again. I should just get over it and go back to acting as if nothing affects me, like every other person supposedly does. See Kay, this is what I’m saying, I have to justify my right to be upset as an adult. That shouldn’t happen, people should be able to express their emotions and communicate their issues without feeling something is wrong with them. The problem is other people, and this culture that for some reason, seems to belive the best thing to do for everyone is to admonish them for not being a good little cog in the machine.

    My rant, is done.

  119. I have never, ever in my entire life hear anyone refer to a disabled person as ‘lame’.

    happyapple, it turns out that sometimes even when you don’t hear or see something, it still happens. One of those unfortunate consequences of solipsism being a purely theoretical exercise.

  120. This post caused me to not use an ableist word when I was upset yesterday. You’ve made a difference.

  121. A friend of mine has two severely disabled nieces, and mentioned the very same thing to me in a discussion once. I must admit that I’m guilty of using the word. However, since the conversation with my friend, I’ve made a conscious effort to stop myself. Thank you for reminding me.

  122. I feel the same way, mostly due to a close friend I had who’s younger brother had Down syndrome. When I started college in the south I repeatedly implored my friends not to use that word in that way, some were receptive and some blew it off. Some tried, slipped a lot, and would halfheartedly apologize after, which I guess is better than nothing since at least it made them think about it.

    I feel the same way about people using “gay” to mean stupid, since I have a few billion gay friends.

    I had never thought about “lame” though, I guess since the technical meaning has been gone for so long.

    I guess a good old fashioned “that sucks” won’t disparage any particular group, so I’ll stick with that. :)

  123. I should add that one of my friends is now in a “do not say retarded” facebook group. He was one who genuinely tried but slipped up a lot. I let it slide when we were at a football game and he laughed because the opposing team’s marching band arrived on buses that said “hotard” across the side. At least he laughed and apologized for it all at once.

    I tried to return the favor by reducing my use of the word “goddamn” around my more religious friends. It worked as long as I didn’t stub my toe.

  124. A word that was taken away from the people it was invented for here in the UK is ‘Spastic’ specifically it describes the muscle tone in (usually) cerebral palsy – please correct me if this is wrong, but it is my understanding of the word.

    When I was growing up, (1980 I hit the eqv of 1st Grade) it was used as an insult, as was putting your tongue into your bottom lip and saying ‘derrr’. Not sure where that came from though, but the insinuation was the same.

    I used to teach disabled children how to swim, some were deaf, some had Downs, some dyspraxia, some Aspergers, some were physically disabled – all taught me that life is for living. Naming a condition is just that, it enables others to know what you have, be it health care professionals, pharmacists, schools etc, but at the same time, society has got so caught up in the ‘label’ they forget to see the person who has to wear the label, and who is far more important than what they are/have/ can’t do. Look at what everyone can do! I fall over a lot, walk into things so I am covered in bruises, my co-ordination is so bad it’s laughable, but apparently I am ‘normal’, despite it taking me a year to learn to drive, running like an ostritch and not being able to connect with any ball in any ball sport – but being normal is a whole other article! I’ll stop ranting now.

    My best friend’s husband was in a bad RTA, and now walks with a bad limp and requires a wheelchair for long distances, he has short term memory loss and their whole lives have had major upheaval over the past 9 years since it happened, including moving to a bungalow and a court case that took 6 years to get resolved. A few years ago we all charged out for a day at Longleat. While visiting the house, every single person in the rooms describing furniture, answering questions about the decor etc talked directly to Jim, explaining that some rooms the carpets couldn’t take the wheel chair, but moving people out the way and also moving his chair so that he could see as much of the room as possible while describing what he couldn’t see. It was a revelation, and gave us a warm fuzzy feeling all day, as they all recognised him as a person first.

    Incidentally it isn’t just these words that have been taken and used so far out of context their meaning is, well, meaningless now. Try ‘awesome!’ squealed at high pitch by teens, that one is so overused, if something truly awesome happened, what would we use to describe it?

  125. okay I gave up on finishing the comments. but interesting. I always thought of ‘jipped’ rather than ‘gypped’, so I never got the correlation to gypsies… I guess much like one poster that interpreted CP as ‘seepy’…

    and I still think of ‘queer’ as ‘odd’ rather than ‘homosexual’ guess I’ll have to change that…

  126. Hi, you don’t know me but I bookmarked this post MONTHS ago. Thank you for writing it. It seems even more poignant now in light of the Tropic Thunder bizness which has created a lot of discussion. They throw around the R word in the movie and while they do it to make fun of people who make fun of people with disabilities (follow THAT? lol) they are still helping the word seep even more into public consciousness which I find hurtful. So I am linking to this post on my blog as an example of why the word hurts.

  127. Hi Goldie! I look forward to reading your post. I’ve heard a little about the Tropic Thunder debate, but not much, and I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m inclined to think that the makers of the movie know it’s offensive (hence making fun of people who make fun, as you put it) but have no idea what that actually *means* and how visceral and demeaning it is. One of the reasons I wrote this post was because I have known a lot of people who “know” they’re not supposed to say “retarded” because it’s theoretically offensive, but they don’t really take it seriously because they don’t stop to think about what it actually feels like to be on the receiving end of it. Part of that is no doubt due to lack of exposure to people with intellectual disabilities.

  128. im doing a paper on the word retard and have descovered many great arguments on the topic.
    but the reason i choose this topiic is because one of my bestfriends has an older sister who is “retarded” and we both get affended when we hear people use that term, its affensive and rude. and should be used more properly. not as it is most commonly used today.
    as a high school student we hear that word alot and it makes me rather mad. i want everyone who reads this to please stop using that word in the offensive manner.

  129. I recently have been examining my use of the word retarded and found this post very enlightening.

    As a fat woman who constantly has idiots yelling things out of car windows at me, my unthinking, reflexive response was always to yell things like “F U, Retard” because it’s short and strong enough to get the point across quickly.

    I don’t know why I chose that word, aside from the fact that someone speeding by in a car would not be swayed (or present) to hear something longer and more eloquent.

    Also, because the kind of jerks who yell at fat people out of windows would, in all probability, be insulted to hear themselves called such a word, and I was going for nothing more than a quick and hurtful response that would make *them* feel as bad as they wanted to make me feel.

    3 months ago, I was walking down the street with some friends and two teenage boys screamed at us (a bunch of fat women are destined to attract that kind of behavior no matter where they go, it seems). I screamed back at them… and as my friends looked at me in shock, I had a very big light bulb go on over my head. (I am very soft spoken and most people would never even *believe* I was capable of screaming at someone unless they saw it with their own two eyes).

    Yet, here I was, in the middle of the sidewalk, screaming like an idiot, using a word that I would tear someone to pieces for using if they had spoken it to someone who the term clinically described. I felt horrified and embarrassed.

    I don’t know why it took me so long to understand that it was wrong to use that word, but in a flash, I finally did. I spent a lot of time trying to think of a word that had similar impact that I could use instead – and most of the words were equally cruel. I have settled on “ignorant”, because though it packs less of a punch and has more syllables, ignorance is a condition which a person CHOOSES for themselves, not one which has been forced on them.

  130. ps, after reading the above comments, I think I need to re-consider my use of the word “idiot” as well. When I say the word, I really mean something like “some jerk who is saying hateful things but who probably isn’t half as smart as the person they’re making fun of which means they don’t know enough to know that they’re supposed to shut up now”… which takes longer to say but is more accurately what I mean when I say the word. If that makes sense. At any rate, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid the word until it’s instinctual.

  131. In Britain the words you hear are ‘retard’ ‘spaz/spastic/spasticated’ and occasionally ‘mong’ (thought that’s pretty retro now). Spaz and retard were the ones most prevalent at my school (til I left a couple years ago), along with infuriating and highly inaccurate ‘impressions’ of a generalised disabled person, replete with arms held as though the person had CP, and non-verbal sounds that sounded like a sea-lion rather than any kid with special needs I know…*Sigh* They knew my twin has severe and profound problems and found it hilarious to take this p*ss. The terminology I like to use is ‘kids with special needs’ as it puts the focus on the child not the difficulties they might face.

  132. I encountered a really fascinating insight in my reading the other day. It’s one of those things (and there seem to be so many!) that would probably not have occurred to me in a million years, but now seem so simple and obvious. Samuel Johnson (he of the dictionary) believed that words generally move from their literal to a metaphorical sense. Ardent, for example, started out as literally hot or on fire, and gradually came to be used almost exclusively in its metaphorical sense–passionate, fierce, vehement, etc. I, at least, have never taken a sip of liquid and said, “Wow! That’s some ardent coffee!”

    Another favorite: the English language’s alteration of the meanings of words for right-handedness in Latin or French (dexter, droit) into words for skill and competence, and correspondingly, words for left-handedness (sinister, gauche) into words with connotations of evil or social awkwardness.

    That is SO amazingly the case with the kind of language we’re talking about here. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a human being referred to as lame or dumb in the original, literal sense, yet the metaphorical sense flourishes. (Retarded is one that I think I’ve seen make the switch within my lifetime, although its status is still ambiguous enough that it can make Sweet Machine and people with similar experiences hurt.) In the case of words like idiot and imbecile, it seems that their meanings have changed from a perceived immutable state of being to a descriptor for someone whose actions repeatedly show poor decision-making or lack of reflection. That is, it’s gone from something you can change to something you can’t, or from a simple statement of fact to a judgment.

    I guess the take-home from all of this is that the metaphorical so totally replaces the literal that people forget original meanings, if they ever knew them in the first place. We all probably knew that, at least on a subconscious level. I would like to see us come up with a new set of withering put-downs that don’t come with this historical baggage. Let’s go directly to the metaphorical! (Great battle cry, isn’t it?)

    I’ll go first.

    Plarpic. adj. Hastily or poorly-reasoned; often the result of unexamined prejudices.

    “That is one of the most plarpic arguments I’ve ever heard.”

    Obniork. noun. Willfully ignorant or unreflective person, often one whose careless and plarpic comments wound.

    “Why do you have to be such an obniork all the time?”

    It’s a start. I’m also trying to put together a good word for the media-defined, elusive, relative, and ultimately unattainable body size and shape that we’ve had to use the unsatisfactory term “normal” for around here.

  133. Er–4th paragraph, last sentence: strike “something you can change to something you can’t”; reverse. Thanks.

  134. My son, a four year old with speech and developmental delays, attends a special-needs preschool, but I’m not sure they’re officially referring to any of the kids as “retarded” now.

    “Special needs” and “developmentally delayed” seem to be the broader labels of choice these days.

    If it’s not being much used as an official clinical term, I imagine the sting of literality in “retard” will quickly lose its power among the younger generation. And it’ll become a bit softer as an insult, as well; I already hear people my age using it more playfully than with real hostility.

    Something edgier must rise to take its place! lol.

    I mean “jerk” is short for “jerk-off” right? with the implied premise that the dude in question is SUCH A LOSER that he…. masturbates. (the shock!)

    And I don’t know whether “suck” derives from “dick sucking” or “egg sucking” or something else, but I doubt its origins were entirely innocuous and unhurtful, either.

    Fact is, it’s just hard to insult someone satisfactorily without trashing someone else out in the process.

  135. Fact is, it’s just hard to insult someone satisfactorily without trashing someone else out in the process.

    Very true. But still, using “retarded” playfully doesn’t make it any less painful for many people to hear.

  136. It’s really going to be about generational differences, IMO, Kate.

    If “retarded” isn’t what they mark on your child’s medical record, you just aren’t going to care as much if someone describes their boss as a “retard” at your backyard BBQ.

    We hardly have any insults at all that don’t stem from comparing your antagonist to something, or someone, that both parties recognize as being Real Bad, so dreadful that the antagonist will presumably do ANYTHING to distance themselves from it.

    Even the funny substitution “Republican” would really only burn in the social circles that tend to universally view Republicans as a party comprised of rustic dummies. It’s the implication that the person you’re insulting as about as vapid and low-rent as Rush Limbaugh that stings.

  137. anyway, I guess my point is, the only time something really dies as a wellspring of insults is when it really stops being seen as something really bad.

    Even then, the original words don’t go away. We just forget where they came from.

    When’s the last time you had a left-handed person remind you not to use the hurtful adjective “sinister?”

    Unfortunately for people like my son, intelligence (and especially verbal intelligence!) is becoming MORE important, not less, and I just don’t think the stigma attached to a lack thereof will go away entirely in our lifetimes.

    You’d think “Aspergers syndrome” would be hard to turn into an insult, but I’ve heard people use that with a whole lot more flint than “retard.”

  138. yea i used to say “thats gay” but i stopped and started saying thats lame instead, but then i found out what that meant so im stil trying to find replacements for “lame” or “retarded”
    it’s hard to stop when your so used to it. but i just madea list of other, non-offensive words that work just as well.

  139. I’m fairly bad about using the word retarded and know I need to change that, but this comments thread has alternated for me between ‘ack it is so depressing that people use things that that’ and “IS THERE NOTHING I CAN SAY ANYMORE WTF” (see, wtf, that has fuck in it, people are objecting to ‘fuck’ up there too.)

    I wasn’t even AWARE that spaz had anything to do with people with CP. It’s a fairly common word among my peers and not an incredibly insulting one – descriptor similar to klutzy, usually.

    But the point mentioned with ‘sinister’ makes me even more argh because I am a fairly angry and foul-mouthed person and I AM RUNNING OUT OF WORDS HERE PEOPLE. Anything that’s going to be an insult is going to be taken from some ‘bad’ quality so….. where do you draw the line? Obviously I’m still going to try and cut out retarded, but things like lame and dumb are really divorced from their original meaning now. (There was a commenter up there who thought dumb meant deaf, which is kind of proof of how the original meaning is lost. It means *mute*, not deaf. ie, ‘struck dumb with awe’.)

    Should I even start on other words, like cunt? Didn’t see that mentioned before, know that the deragatory reference to female genitals is bad. My fiance counteracts that by just using words for male genitals instead. (I only use cunt when I’m in serious pain or really really mad, either way stringing together every curse I can think of: shitfuckdamncuntbitchcock sort of thing.)

    (On a side note, I’ve been active lately in a usenet group that has a lot of posters who have been abused and find various things triggering, and there are a LOT of words that have, say, religious or sexual implications that I have to cut out or * the vowels in and it’s interesting how hard it is to think of an alternative sometimes.)

    Sorry, rambly.

  140. There was a commenter up there who thought dumb meant deaf, which is kind of proof of how the original meaning is lost.

    No, many people who are deaf from birth are also unable to articulate a spoken language with any degree of clarity. Disabilities of the vocal cords are rare. Except for the temporary case (struck dumb), most dumb people are also deaf. In fact, the phrase deaf and dumb used to be common.

    There was a time when “mutes” (again, mainly deaf people) were not allowed to own property. Discrimination against the deaf was widespread, even for religious reasons (talking Paul’s line, How will they be saved unless they hear? startlingly out of context).

    My mother is a qualified Irish Sign Language/English interpreter, and I’ve read a few of her textbooks, so I know a little about this.


  141. Hello,
    I have just found your blog, that’s why I’m leaving this comment more than two years after you posted the question about the use of the word “retarded” in other countries. I’m from Brazil. The equivalent of “retarded” in Brazilian Portuguese is “retardado” (you can see that the origin of the word seems the same) and it is used in the same derogatory way. I liked your blog a lot, and intend to keep reading it. Thank you!

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