Guest post: Reconsidering the word “retard”

Earlier this week, a friend of mine used the word “retard” in its slang form in one of his status updates on Facebook. I recoiled when I read it, and my first thought was to unfriend him. Instead, I decided to call him out on it. Maybe rather harshly.

So why does that word make me recoil? Because I believe it validates and encourages our shameful responses to and treatment of people with intellectual disabilities.

As I commented to my friend, I believe people with intellectual disabilities are the most marginalized group of people in our society. Our society does not respectfully value people with intellectual disabilities. We may feel good about donating to campaigns for local agencies, but that is quite different than respectfully valuing people. We do a poor job of viewing people with intellectual disabilities as peers, as fully human. We may pity, we may feel inspired, but these are patronizing responses and far different from feeling respect and connection. People with intellectual disabilities are among the most disrespected, unvalued people in our society and as a group face much more discrimination than any other group.

We still lock people with intellectual disabilities up for the crime of having an intellectual disability. We know that we can provide the supports and services they need to live in their communities, typically at less cost than institutions, but we still lock them up. Think about that. We know how to provide supports in the community. We know how to build capacity to live more independently. But as a society we choose not to do this. We choose to spend more money to remove people from our communities.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in L.C. v. Olmstead that essentially said that states had to provide community-based services, as opposed to institutionalized services, for people with disabilities who were “ready” to live in their communities. Of course, all people are ready to live in communities, given the appropriate services and supports. Eleven years later, we still wait in most states for that decision to have an impact on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. We have appointed committees and task forces and councils, but we still have people locked up in institutions.

People with intellectual disabilities are at extreme risk for being sexually abused. Research suggests that nearly half of females with intellectual disabilities will be sexually abused 10 or more times during their lives. Ten or more times! Think about that statistic for a moment. Think about what allowing repeated sexual abuse says about how we view people with intellectual disabilities.

Abuse of people with intellectual disabilities is not viewed the same as abuse of other people. In the last couple of years in Texas, there have been multiple instances of staff at institutions for people with intellectual disabilities abusing and arranging, cheering on and in some cases betting on fights between women with intellectual disabilities. In many of these cases, women were seriously injured.

While it seems that this should lead to criminal charges, it does not always. The Department of Family and Protective Services was quiet on much of this. It took the press to shine a light on it and get the legislature involved. I would bet my house that Texas is not the only state where abuse is ignored by the agencies charged with protecting people.

We are slow to prosecute people who abuse people with intellectual disabilities, people who are often caretakers and service providers. There are fairly recent cases of “mercy” killings, sometimes parents killing children, which are not prosecuted. Is caring for a child with a significant disability difficult and stressful and something none of us can imagine if we have not been there? Yes. Does that excuse abuse or murder? No.

I hope none of you can look in the mirror and say, “I can condone murdering children because they have disabilities.” How can we possibly argue that we value people with intellectual disabilities if we are so hesitant to prosecute their abuse and murder?

These are the most horrific issues. There are other issues. The acceptance of subpar education. The common belief that educational dollars are wasted on people with intellectual disabilities. The underfunded and recently decimated funding for services for people with intellectual disabilities. The underemployment. The inadequate health care. The social isolation. The poverty.

And I believe that when someone uses the words “retard” or “retarded,” he or she, whether intentionally or not, condones this marginalization. The words used as slang make light of the daily atrocities committed against people with intellectual disabilities, as well as the day to day struggles people might face in making their ways in their communities.

These are not just words. They are hurtful. They are insensitive. And they have power to perpetuate our shameful treatment of people with intellectual disabilities.

Can you commit to not using them again?

Debbie Shelden is a faculty member in the College of Education at Illinois State University. This guest post originally appeared as a note on Facebook.



  1. Thank you. As a music teacher, I find it’s a crap shoot whether I can make mnemonic cognate connections between the Italian “ritardando” (slowing in tempo) and “flame retardant” (slowing the spread of fire) without giggles from students whose minds have clearly jumped to “that other” cognate.

    I won’t be able to give as thorough a response as you’ve given here, of course, but you’ve reminded me of the importance of giving SOME response, rather than shrugging it off.

  2. Thank you for this. It means a lot to those of us who love and cherish our relationship with a family member who lives with special needs.

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