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The R-word(s): Let me be perfectly clear

Posted Dec 31 2009 12:00am

That person who dropped the R-bomb on Michael and me the other night is someone with whom we have a long-term, professional relationship. A relationship which is now in jeopardy. I've been going over and over the whole exchange in my mind ever since it happened, and although at the time I appreciated the fact that she didn't become outwardly defensive, her explanation just isn't adding up in my mind, and now I'm left feeling that she chose to hide behind an easy, false explanation rather than just owning up to the truth, that she spoke out of ignorance or insensitivity. I'm having a lot of trouble with that, so I finally sat down today and wrote her a letter explaining where I'm at with all of this. I'd like to share a small part of what I wrote here for anyone who follows or stumbles across this blog:

Regarding the terms “retarded” and “retard”:

“Retarded” does have a clinical context. It originated as a medical diagnosis, and “mentally retarded” is still appropriately used in that manner, although it is falling out of favor, simply because over the years it has evolved into a general insult used willy-nilly. It’s sort of lost its original clinical meaning and is now widely used to disparage people. These days, the terms “developmentally delayed,” “intellectual disability,” and “cognitive impairment” are more appreciated by family members and loved ones of persons who have such diagnoses. However, the terms “retarded” and “mentally retarded” technically still have their appropriate places in a clinical context.

“Retard” as a noun – as in, referring to a person as “a retard” - has never had an appropriate context. It originated as a slur, and it remains a slur. It’s a hate word. Just like “nigger,” “dyke,” “faggot,” “spic,” and the like, it is a word that disparages, demoralizes, dehumanizes, marginalizes, and just plain hurts. There is no proper way to use it.

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