What does replacing the word retarded with intellectual disability accomplish?

Another celebrity, this time Lady Gaga, is in trouble for using the word “retarded” out of context.

Retarded is derived from the Latin, retardare and means a delay. This etymology helps to explain the appropriate medical use of the word: mentally retarded referring to an individual with significantly sub average intellectual functioning, typically an I.Q. of less than 70-75, and physical retardation which means a significant delay in physical abilities.

Retarded has also been co-opted as derogatory urban slang for stupid. When it graduated to the derogatory Merriam-Webster English for stupid, it became the R-word. Medical communities have responded in kind, almost universally replacing the word “retarded” with “intellectual disability.” They mean exactly the same thing. A low I.Q.

I find the universal cleansing of retarded from both the English language and medical terminology interesting, because the word retarded was not born out of any offensive intent. There are some medial terms that were born bad. A good example is Mongolism, a term coined by a quite possibly xenophobic Dr. Down for describing what is now known as Down syndrome. But is retarded, a word that has had a valid medical meaning for over a hundred years, and is derived from an inoffensive latin origin, really as bad as words whose sole purpose is to wound and maim. By reducing it to the R-word, aren’t we in fact assigning it the same odious status of the N-word and the C-word?

If changing medical terminology and cleansing our language removes prejudice and intolerance, then our professional societies have a lot of reclassification to organize. Who among us hasn’t heard the word spaz (derogatory for spasticity, the hallmark finding among individuals with cerebral palsy), schizo (short for schizophrenic), psycho (short for psychotic), bipolar, or cretin used pejoratively? Or is it somehow less offensive to co-opt these words?

Language is dynamic. In time, foreign words, slang, and even medical terms will become part of our vernacular and while most will enhance our language, a few will be used offensively. However, removing the word “retarded” from both medicine and what my mother would call polite language does nothing to change attitudes, improve manners, or teach compassion. Those advocates who feel that retarded should be the R-word should ask themselves: Would Lady Gaga’s intent have been any different if she had called her detractors “intellectually disabled”?

Just ask my kids. You can call someone wrong or misinformed, but you should never, ever call them stupid.

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3 Responses to What does replacing the word retarded with intellectual disability accomplish?

  1. One thing about the term retardation as opposed to intellectual disability (slang usage aside) is that retardation like “delay” seems to imply that the affected person will “catch up”, when often that’s not the intended meaning. So intellectual disability may be more precise for lay people – though it has nothing to do with being polite :) .

  2. This is one of my bêtes noirs. Physical and, especially, intellectual impairment should not be, but are stigmatising. I’m not going to discuss the whether this is due to fear and revulsion, or why; but it has always been the case.

    Consequently, words for physical or intellectual impairment or disability become associated with stigma, and are then as terms of abuse. The words then become coloured by this abusive association, and start to seem like bad words.

    It seems to me that there are two ways you can respond to this. You can run, frightened, from the words, and find alternatives. The problem with this is that the alternatives are euphemisms, and their meaning is often much less clear. For example, we’ve replaced words with clear broad meanings with others whose literal meaning is far more specific – and often less accurate. The ability to think, reason, and function in society clearly involves e.g. memory, emotion, cognition (thinking), and an ability to integrate all of these functions. So to use “cognitive impairment” as a euphemism for all forms of impairment in the ability to do these things implies that the difficulty is specific to thinking; whereas it may be in one of the other aspects. And in physical impairment, the UK Spastics Society has changed its name to “Scope”. The word “spastic” has, as you describe, acquired a derogatory meaning, so one can understand the change; but the new name is – presumably deliberately – almost meaningless, giving people no idea what the charity is about.

    In England, children with intellectual impairments (and a few with particularly strong abilities) are described – accurately enough – as “children with special educational needs”. Or more often, as “special needs children”. So now the term of abuse thrown by one child in the playground at another is “special!” – meaning “stupid”.

    The other way to respond to the way these words are used is to use the word that most accurately and least euphemistically describes what you mean, and use it. If it’s associated with a stigmatising condition the chances are that it will acquire negative associations; but, rather than changing the word in response, you work on challenging the negative associations, and helping the person with the condition (and their family and carers, if to understand that the negative use of the word is inaccurate and inappropriate. This might be hard. But the fact is, they have a condition that is stigmatising, and will have to learn to cope with it anyhow. Constantly changing the word used – and risking inaccurate communication as a consequence of the loss of linguistic precision that follows – is not a trivial price to pay.

  3. Martha says:

    I agree with your main points. It’s crucial to be conscientious about the words we choose. I was therefore a little disappointed that you referred to the r-word as “urban slang.” “Urban” is often used as a euphemism for inner-city minorities, and carries a lot of baggage. Do you really think that individuals in the suburbs or in small towns are more respectful in their linguistic choices?

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