Saturday, 9 July 2016

Let's talk about the R word. (Warning: frequent use of the R word)

So I'd like to talk about the R word.

There are so many angles to this conversation it's hard to know where to start.

Many of my Australian readers will have noticed that a couple of Australian tennis players dropped the 'R' bomb during the week.  This gained extra attention because a friend of mine, Kat - mum to Parker of the Bonds Baby Search (which he won) and writer of many articles and at least one blog (, decided that was enough and called them out on it via a video rant she posted on her blog's Facebook page - . This went viral and a few media programs picked it up.

In case you've missed it, there is a strong feeling amongst many parents of children with Trisomy 21 that the word 'retard', or 'retarded' has lost its usefulness and is now just derogatory and should be banned. Of course, there are opinions in the T21 community right along the spectrum from not being bothered about it to being all for the banishment of the word completely, in all contexts (including medical terminology).

So from where does this word originate?
The Oxford Dictionary says it's from 15th Century French retarder, from Latin retardare, from re- 'back' + tardus 'slow'. (Its brother 'ritard' has long been used in classical music with the same connotation, slowing down.)
The Oxford has a verb definition: Delay or hold back in terms of progress or development:
'his progress was retarded by his limp'. 
This is how you hear the word used in a medical context. You hear 'growth retardation' quite regularly. As a verb it describes slowed growth. It's benign in its intent. It is describing abnormal growth in neither a positive or negative way. It's the opposite to acceleration. No-one's making fun of anyone or being rude when they use it. This is a verb.

Somewhere along the line, this verb turned into a noun, and that's where the trouble started.

I've stolen the following from Wikipedia [Retard (pejorative)]:

Retard when used as a noun is a pejorative word used to refer to people with mental disabilities.[1] The word retard was widely accepted in the late-1900s to refer to people with mental disabilities; however it is now more commonly used as an insult. The word has gained notoriety for causing a growing number of mentally disabled people to feel unfairly stereotyped.[2]


The word retard dates as far back as 1426. It stems from the Latin verb, retardare, meaning to hinder or make slow. The English adopted the word and used it as similar meaning, slow and delayed. The first time the word “retard” was printed in American newspapers was in 1704. At this time, it was used in a way to describe the slowing down or the diminishing of something. The first time that any form of retard was used to describe mentally disabled people was during the 1960s when "there was a push among disability advocates to use the label mental retardation."[3] This push from advocates was because older terms for the mentally disabled, like moron, imbecile, feeble minded and idiot, had developed negative meanings.[3] Retard was not used to refer to mentally disabled people until 1985. It was widely accepted to refer to people who are mentally disabled as mentally retarded, or as a retard. From there, it turned quickly into a pejorative term, as people began to use it interchangeably with words like stupid, or idiot. Many communities, particularly in North America, regard the word as no longer socially acceptable. The fact that it is still commonly used has led to a continuing debate. A common replacement is the phrase “the r-word.”[4]

Modern use

Retard has transitioned from an impartial term to one that is negatively loaded. For this reason, it is now widely considered degrading even when used in its original context.[5]
Most commonly when retard is being used in its pejorative form, it is not being directed at people with mental disabilities. Instead, people use retard when they want to call their friend stupid, an idiot, or a loser.[6] This use of the word retard is the part of what the campaigners are trying to attack. The campaigners are trying to make everyone understand that retard is a derogatory term no matter the context.[7]

So we are left with a bit of a problem as you can see in the last paragraph. People growing up since 1985 have adopted a noun usage of the word (I rarely hear it used in those over 40). It's like the boys at school used to call people mongoloids - and I'm pretty sure they had no idea what it even meant, I certainly didn't - they just wanted to be mean to the girls. 
It's generally the teens and young adults I hear using this word as a noun, and these are usually very kind people who are using it to describe themselves doing something they consider to be less than their usual example of intellectual splendour. Brain fart moments, etc. In that sense, calling an action of theirs retarded actually is descriptive of a slowing in themselves, so is almost linguistically correct - except for how the word got to there in the first place. They might also call a situation retarded, but not another person or their actions. This would be an adjective use.

Less kind individuals call their friends retarded or retards kind of affectionately, but I don't have any friends who would say that to me. I don't hang out with people who point out my bad points. 

Even less kind individuals would use the word as an insult. This is the kind of person you'd avoid on the street or get into a scuffle with. They're looking for a fight. They would also call you a dickhead, a fuckwit, an arsehole, a cunt, ad libitum, with all the spittle and forceful hate that accompanies such vitriol. We don't have to take any of this onboard, but it's the kind of language that just doesn't belong anywhere but has somehow crept into what is considered normal usage in many circles - Flinders Lane on a Saturday night for instance. Also, those insults also have some degree of respect attached to them. Calling someone a retard implies they deserve no respect. 

The telling thing you read above is that the adoption of this word for intellectual disability has come about because the previous words used (moron, imbecile, feeble minded and idiot) had developed negative meanings. I'm guessing that the words used before those ones were replaced because they too had developed negative meanings and from that I extrapolate that if we go on a campaign to banish the word retard simply because it has a negative meaning, it won't remove the negative intent. The negative intent is what makes the word so hateful and ugly. 

I consider us very lucky. Jacinta is surrounded by people who love her and think she's cute, beautiful and awesome. This includes her extended family, but also includes those who see her at school, at kinder, our friends, the Facebook community, our church, the staff at Aldi, anyone we meet in the street, those who watch her passing as she carries on with life - everyone. She is surrounded. By people who think she's cute, beautiful and awesome. 

While every small child with Trisomy 21 is individual, you would expect that every small child whether they have T21 or not would be considered cute and beautiful purely by virtue of the fact that they are little and cute and doing cute little things. No-one ever expects their toddler to be the subject of vitriol and degrading remarks, yet for too many parents whose children have T21 this is exactly what they encounter when out and about, at the shops, at the Doctor's surgery, going about their business. These children are called 'retard' or 'retarded' and the people saying it mean it with its full negative connotation. Some of these people mean it in a hateful way, some in a demeaning, degrading and disrespectful way. 

You can imagine - or perhaps you can't, but you can try - how it could be for a parent who loves their little child with all their heart and considers them the centre of their universe to hear someone saying horrible things to and about their child who is not only far too small to defend him/herself, but maybe even too young to fully grasp the intent of the words. 

Parents do at times come across nasty people who imply subtly that perhaps their child is doing the wrong thing to the person's own, or that a parent is doing the wrong thing in raising the child. This is an unfortunate part of hanging out with humans. If there's an infraction, call it, resolve it and carry on, upfront and frankly. When a child has been doing absolutely nothing wrong in the first place and you start calling them names, that is bullying. The bullying of a child impacts on the parent, absolutely. The words of torment become words that trigger all kinds of upset and anger, particularly if the anger is directed at some nameless stranger who walked passed, shot out the insult and slunk away before the shocked parent could think of anything to say in retort. 

Unfortunately it doesn't end when a child gets old enough to defend him/herself.  Even the best of us struggle to find the killer comeback when a bully decides to have a go at us - and as we all know, bullies don't grow out of it, they grow up and become adult bullies if someone doesn't do something about it. 

I'm betting that all around the country there are intellectually impaired children, teens and adults (whose thought processes are a little like many neurotypical adults who can't function in the morning without coffee and are at that point also intellectually impaired) who are still seething over the incident or incidents where they were viciously insulted and are wishing they had only managed to come up with the awesome comeback they have now constructed.  I'm fairly sure they probably replay this moment in their heads from time to time, in a version where they say it and walk away leaving the bully stunned in their wake. As do we all. 

So if you call yourself mentally retarded in the morning before a coffee, that is a correct use of the term - except if you're in the US you should be calling yourself intellectually disabled because of legislation passed in 2010 called Rosa's Law which removed the term 'mentally retarded' from all federal health, education and labour policy (and the implication is that it is now replaced across the board). 

But let's get to the absolute crux of the problem, to which I alluded earlier. 
One day intellectually disabled will be a stigmatised term and a noun will be derived from it which describes those with slower thought processes (belonging to a certain group with distinct medical diagnoses). We as humans want to come up with a quick and easy descriptive term - particularly in Australia we shorten everything. It's like calling people with T21 'Downsies' - it's quick and easy, and I'm sure very few people who use/d that term mean/t it in a derogative way. 

We have people who are using this word almost quite appropriately to describe their own intellectually slow behaviour, and it is with good humour and benign intent. From what I see, this is the most common usage of the word and it is very difficult to effectively explain to people who are using a word like they would any other - be it 'silly', 'sugar' or 'pumpernickel' why exactly they're having a perfectly useful word removed from their vocabulary willy nilly. They can't see that they're insulting anyone but themselves and they feel they should be allowed to do that. 

Still, there is language that is benign and language that is offensive. Some have a higher threshold than others for offensive language - and I find it amusing sometimes to witness a person with a high threshold for offensive language suddenly be shocked to hear a particular word used around them.  Different words are offensive for different people. As a general rule, if you wouldn't say it to your grandmother, or in a job interview, then just don't say it. 

Also, looking at many words that are considered offensive nowadays, if you trace them to their roots they were just working definitions for things that needed a word. I can think of an insulting name for someone whose actions are not up to your standard which used to be the term for someone born out of wedlock - regardless of their character. If you look at the history of the C word, it was not considered taboo in the middle ages, but gained a vulgar use in the last couple of hundred years. 500 years ago people were dropping the C bomb without batting an eyelid. The word 'gay' was around for 500 years before it took on any kind of negative connotation. Then it went from having a  promiscuous slant in the 1890s to having a homosexual slant in the 1920s, which definition has gone from being insulting to being a benign label for a group in society - almost full circle. 

Words change. Meanings change. The language is fluid. The R word will change. If it stays in use its meaning will change. If it drops out of use it will be replaced by another. So what do we do? 

We change attitudes. 

I have said before that I don't go for inclusion and acceptance. This is exactly why. Inclusion and acceptance lead to insults behind closed doors when they're not accepting and including. It implies that there is effort required in letting people from certain minorities live happily and exercise their human rights. 

What I shoot for is respect and understanding. When you respect someone, you don't have a nasty stereotype for them. When you understand them you can see their viewpoint and you have no more reason to exclude them than the person on the other side of you. 

We need to educate, educate, educate the people of the world so they can understand the lives and abilities of those whose thought processes - or even physical processes - may be a little slower than the arbitrary cutoff for 'normal'. 

We need to show the people of the world how many things the above human beings actually can achieve. I know Stella Young didn't want a medal for getting up in the morning, but when I look at what it takes to get up in the morning and out of the house, I respect those with physical or intellectual disabilities for showing up, especially when so many typically developed people would consider it not worth the effort and stay home on the couch. 

We also need to clean up the language we're hearing around us. Where have manners gone? Where did society change the rules on acceptable language? When I was a child you would never have heard the kind of swearing on TV or in movies that you hear these days - not to mention recorded music, and the content of the lyrics. I have to keep the radio on golden oldies stations so I can be sure the music and discussion is appropriate for primary age children. 

Then there are the billboards up everywhere. It's impossible to shield my daughters from sexualised images of women when there are women in lingerie, slicked with oil and sprayed with water, skin to skin with some guy - promoting sunscreen, or shoes, or undies, on the way to school! 

Culture has slipped very fast into a zone where standards have gone way down. This is the environment our young women and men are being raised into. Can we really expect them to magically imbue some class or respect when they are living daily in an environment where these are not valued and barely shown? 

If we want to get rid of the R word, it's a bigger problem, as Kat said. 

It's a bigger problem than just a word. 

It's about respect, it's about understanding. 

It's about knowing who actually inhabits your city or your country. It's about knowing more than just your own little suburb or school or workplace or church group. 

It's about being interested, and learning about the world you live in - from the actual people themselves, not from some biased media source. 

It's about standing up for class and standards and creating a world where all people are respected, and respectful art and advertising are supported.

This issue is deeper than a word. It's ingrained in our culture. We as a country can change it for the first time by deciding one by one to do these things. 

For centuries, maybe millennia, there has been vilification and exclusion of those who are a bit more unique than the rest. This once used to be based on survival. Now a man can survive even if he's lying in a coma for a decade. We have moved on and our attitudes can change. 

We just need someone to start.