Why I Cannot Freak Out About the Word "Retard"

Why I Cannot Freak Out About the Word "Retard"

As the mom of two boys with Down syndrome, I feel like my ears are especially tuned to hear the words, “Retard” or “Retarded” whenever one of them is thrown out, which is something that still occurs with alarming frequency, even amongst intelligent, educated people.  As a matter of fact, my two previous bosses, both of whom work in the non-profit industry and possess advanced degrees, have used a form of the word in staff meetings.  They aren’t unkind, they aren’t jerks, and they both felt ashamed upon realizing the faux pas, but still, the deed was done.  There’s no unsaying it.

For many years I got riled up when people used the word “retarded” as a slur, but in the way that many things in life end up coming full circle, I’m kind of getting over it.  

You see, your language isn’t about my boys or me.  It’s about you, your experience, your life.  If you call someone or something “retarded” as an insult, my bet is that you haven’t spent much time with people who have met the clinical definition of the word, and that they haven’t touched your life the way they’ve touched mine.  I’d conjecture that your life experience is different from mine in that you haven’t been to over 20 IEP meetings, and spent the past 14 years advocating for someone with cognitive impairment.  So when you use the word, “retard” it’s probably pretty similar to me using the word “goofball”.  It’s a blanket term for something odd or out of the ordinary.

For that reason, I won’t waste my time or energy concerning myself with your choice of jargon, but if you are a person who still uses those terms freely, I do want you to know this:  retarded isn’t a bad thing. Miriam-Webster defines retarded as:  

sometimes offensive

  1. :  slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress


Me and my son, Benjamin.



The word “retarded” does clinically describe one aspect of my boys character.  But it’s far from comprehensive.  It does not encompass all that Ben and Alex are, just their cognitive development.  You see, my boys aren’t retards, they’re people.  Complex, multifaceted, wonderful, valuable people.  Your choice of words just doesn’t accurately reflect them, so I won’t let it bother me.

But I will say, if you still use the term “retard(ed)” if you might be due (or overdue) for some volunteering with an organization that serves people with cognitive impairment.  I think that if you spend some time getting to know the diverse population that falls under the umbrella of cognitive impairments that you will no longer consider something that’s not quite right “retarded”, but rather, would choose another, more apt descriptor from the vast variety of words we have in the English language.

Read more from Alethea at Ben’s Writing Running Mom

Published by Alethea

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