I need to leave my recovery theme for a post about something that’s happening out there in real life. It has been my privilege to make my living by working with people with developmental disabilities, also known as mental retardation. My mother started doing this when I was five and she did it for 38 years. I’ve been at it for about 16 years.
There’s a lot being written about a movie that is being released now that uses the word “retard.” I know this word is used by young people and uninformed people and just plain mean people. I also know that it’s used by responsible, loving, intelligent, compassionate and insightful people who just don’t know that they shouldn’t use it. It should not be used.
As I’ve written before, I enjoy words and I’m interested in them. In the novel Flowers for Algernon, it says something like we can use words that describe mental retardation only until we understand what they mean, then we need a new word. The term of the moment is “developmental disability.” In the past, in the US, people with mental retardation have been described as idiots, imbeciles, cretins, morons, and feeble-minded, and these were not insulting terms in their time. They were medical, factual descriptions. Just as they have become unacceptable ways to describe people, so has “retard” become unacceptable.
Here’s a post that explains it better than I will ever be able to do: http://davehingsburger.blogspot.com/2008/08/words-hit-like-fist.html
In my own thoughts, words that are derogatory and that have been “taken back” by the people they seek to put down are different. Words that describe sexual orientation, or ancestry, or skin color, are simply descriptive. True, to some people, “homosexual” and associated words may be a put down. Homosexuality, however, isn’t good or bad, it just is.
Mental retardation is, at the end of the day, describing a deficit. Whatever words we use to say it, we are naming something that people do not wish to have. To apply the label to someone who does not have a developmental disability, or to oneself, when you don’t have a developmental disability, but are being stupid, clumsy, clueless, or dumb, is wrong. People who have developmental disabilities are often stupid, clumsy, clueless or dumb, just like people who don’t have such a disability.
I don’t pretend to understand the minds of famous people, but it makes me sad to see some of the celebrities and others who are involved with this movie, and selling this stuff. Why? How did this get past the first person who read it, after it was written? Why did the writer write it? Why is OK to hurt these people in this way, and worse, to spread the hurt and make money from it?
When someone I know with a developmental disability dies, I often picture that this person moves on to some kind of heaven, and that in that place, all souls and spirits are equal. I picture that some sort of higher power gate keeper type entity asks this person to give me a reference and recommendation. Yea or nay? What did I do, when in this life, I had the ability to, say, give or withhold a drink of water from someone who wanted one, but couldn’t get it without me? Based on my treatment of people who depended on me, will I go to the good place, or to the bad one? I do things for people as basic as giving a drink of water, and as complicated as trying to help them navigate the system to obtain physical therapy or to determine if the way the bus driver treated them was abusive, or just rude. Given how much we need each other and impact each other, how simple is it to let this offensive word die?