From “Idiot” to “Retard” and Beyond

I just read an article about the movement to eliminate the use of “retard” and its derivative words. I’ve pulled a few quotes from the article that I think are very clear in their meaning. First:

“You can’t ban terminology any more than you can ban thought,” said Dr. Stephen B. Corbin, senior vice president for community impact of the Special Olympics. “But we know that using bad language contributes to the dehumanization and stigmatization of others, which incites treating them differently.”

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with this view. I understand what this man is trying to say, but I just can’t exactly agree. The word “idiot” used to be the term for mentally disabled or intellectually disabled (apparently the new term) or retard, but “idiot” hardly carries the meaning of mentally disabled today. From my perspective at least, idiot is a way to call someone really stupid, but stupid or ignorant in a shameful way, a way that can be corrected.

I am more inclined to agree with the following:

On this point, some opponents of the movement agree with its supporters: Intellectual disability still carries a subconscious cultural taboo which attaches to the word used to describe it. But those who believe the movement is misguided and risky say the stigma will keep attaching to new terms until we purge negative connotations from the condition itself.

“All of this reflects the cycle of word taboo,” said Christopher M. Fairman, a professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University and author of a book subtitled “Word Taboo and Protecting Our First Amendment Liberties.” “We have witnessed this happen as the clinical diagnostic term ‘mental retardation’ became the offensive slur ‘retard.’ And so we will shift again, this time to intellectual disability.”

Already, derogatory use of “ID” is starting to pop up, he said.

“By focusing on the word itself, you reinforce the negative connotation and actually strengthen the taboo,” Fairman said. “The focus should be on the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. This breaks down the cultural taboo that creates word taboo in the first place.”

The cultural taboo of being the child of unmarried parents has certainly broken down without the term “bastard” being eliminated from our vocabulary. If Corbin were entirely correct (“But we know that using bad language contributes to the dehumanization and stigmatization of others, which incites treating them differently.”) the use of the word bastard would have continued to dehumanize and stigmatize people like me. And I would be one loud opponent of words like “bastard” and “retard” if that were indeed the case.

Despite what I see as a somewhat misguided focus on the word “retard,” the overall point is admirable. Intellectually disabled individuals are not treated as they should be much of the time and they are stigmatized. That definitely should change.

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One thought on “From “Idiot” to “Retard” and Beyond

  1. rowanwphillips says:

    Its a good point but as stated as long as a word is needed to describe a condition and society deems that condition worthy of stigma, any chosen word will eventually become tainted with that stigma. It has been seen with a succession of words linked to race, mental ability and physical size and the words that we use now such as ‘Asian’ or ‘large’ will probably bee seen as terms of abuse in years to come. The language will continue to evolve faster than the societies using it.

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