The bigotry behind the word 'retard'

By Timothy Shriver
Monday, February 15, 2010

Professor and author Christopher M. Fairman ["The case against banning the word 'retard,' " Outlook, Feb. 14] made good arguments about the limits of language to effect change in behavior and attitude, as well as about the nuanced ways in which words such as "retard," "queer" and "gay" can carry multiple meanings, some of which intend no insult or humiliation.

But I believe he missed the point of the campaign by people who have intellectual disabilities, their friends, advocates and tens of thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations: We are fighting a word because it represents one of the most stubborn and persistent stigmas in history. Millions of people have a prejudice they often are not even aware of. It is much bigger than a word, but words matter. And the word "retard," whatever its history, reflects a massive problem.

Mental Disability Rights International has found evidence around the world of horrific conditions -- starvation, abuse, isolation -- in institutions serving people with intellectual disabilities. It happens in this country. In Texas, caregivers were recently found to be forcing residents of an institution to awake in the middle of the night and fight one another while staffers cheered and taunted. Here in Washington, repeated investigations have revealed people with intellectual disabilities as the victims of abuse, indifference and negligent death.

Seventy to 90 percent of people with intellectual disabilities in the United States are estimated to be unemployed. Special Olympics studies reveal that more than 60 percent of Americans don't believe that children with intellectual disabilities should be educated in their child's school. Special Olympics' work with health-care providers reveals, among almost all medical professions, a shocking lack of training in the care of people with intellectual disabilities.

Sadly, it seems that many assume that poor health care, poor living conditions and underemployment are inevitable. As one health insurance agent told a parent of a child with Down syndrome seeking health care, "Ma'am. We're not paying for services. Your child is retarded!"

Our coalition seeks no law to ban words and no official censorship against those who freely use "retard." Fairman is surely correct that as language evolves, new words that carry disgusting ridicule will emerge. He can study them and educate us about their evolution.

But for our part, we are trying to awaken the world to the need for a new civil rights movement -- of the heart. We seek to educate people that a crushing prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities is rampant -- a prejudice that assumes that people with significant learning challenges are stupid or hapless or somehow just not worth much. They're, um, "retarded." And that attitude is not funny or nuanced or satirical. It's horrific.

Last week, I tried to assuage the depression of a Special Olympics athlete, an adult, who can't stop hearing the taunt of "retard" that plagued her through school. She has few friends and struggles with a terrifying sense of isolation. Counseling and medication aren't enough. There is nowhere she feels she fits in.

Her pain is enough for me to change my language. That's only a small step and we need many more. But we're not going to get these changes until and unless we awaken our fellow citizens to the truth: Most of us look down on people with intellectual disabilities, and we don't even realize it.

And that's why this word is important: "Retard" is a symbol of a pain few realize exists. Even when it's not directed at people with intellectual disabilities, it perpetuates that pain and stigma. We hope that the discussion about ending it will awaken millions to the hope of ending the discrimination it represents.

If we're successful, the world will discover the joy, hope and sparkling individuality of millions of people. With that, real change will come.

It can't come soon enough.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of Special Olympics.

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