Have you used ever the words ‘retarded’, ‘special needs’, ‘special’, or ‘slow learner’ to mean stupid or weird? I have. The words’ wrongness makes them kind of fun to say – you feel ironic and a bit subversive. But you’d be less comfortable using these words in a context where they might be overheard by an intellectually disabled person or one of their family members. Why do you have to come face-to-face with people before you start thinking about their feelings? It wasn’t until I started having gay friends that the fun of using ‘gay’ as a pejorative term wore off. Sad really, that empathy can only travel such short distances, that you need to come face-to-face with people before you start thinking about their feelings.
Debates around ‘disablist’ language erupted recently when writer and satirist Ben Pobjie tweeted during a rugby match, ‘That was one of the weirdest, most learning-disabled tries I’ve ever seen’ (for the sport-challenged, a ‘try’ is a type of rugby move). This prompted writer and disability advocate Stella Young to write a post on ABC’s Ramp Up criticising his use of the term ‘learning disabled,’ arguing that it hurt just as just as much as the less-PC term ‘retarded.’ Pobjie’s surprisingly vitriolic reaction was to damn the piece and its author as ‘a moronic blog post about a tweet that the idiot author didn’t even understand or ask me about.’
A few days later, Geoff Lemon, in an otherwise compelling blog post about the carbon tax and the first world entitlement mentality, compared the carbon tax debate to ‘a dozen retards trying to fuck a doorknob’ (this was changed ‘a dozen drunken idiots trying to root a doorknob’ when republished by ABC’s The Drum). Responding to comments on his blog challenging his use of retard in this context he argued, ‘In my day-to-day understanding of the word, and in my usage of it here, it doesn’t refer to the disabled … while some [readers] have been uncomfortable, the vast majority … have understood my usage. Over 70,000 people have read this now, and about 20 have complained, while at least the same number have singled out that line for particular praise. I’m ok with that split.’
But when you’re talking about the hurtful effect of your words on a disadvantaged minority group, the argument that not many people have complained, and that others have found a line clever, doesn’t really wash. Human rights, including the right not to be discriminated against, are designed to be upheld regardless of majority views. Anyway, 20 complaints in this context is rather a lot when you consider that not everyone who’s offended will make a complaint.
And whether or not the writer intended to refer to the disabled in this context, it’s foreseeable that the term would be interpreted this way amongst some readers, particularly as the imagery seems to refer specifically to persons with intellectual disabilities. A reader who has a child with an intellectual disability, a child who has experienced ongoing discrimination including being labeled as a ‘retard,’ might be able to separate their child’s hurtful experiences from the use of the word in this context, but it’s unlikely.
Even apart from any offence taken by readers due to their personal associations with those with disabilities, I’d argue that using the term retard in this way is harmful in itself. Retard, if taken in its strictest sense, isn’t a bad word– it means slow to learn – and yes, many people with intellectual disabilities do learn slower than other people. But when used as an insult, it reinforces the idea that people with intellectual disabilities are dumb, abnormal, and on the outer.
Yes, it is just a word, but language as the basis for our thoughts and attitudes means that it is worth paying attention to. This is why in 2010, the US Senate passed a law called Rosa’s law, which removes terms such as ‘mental retardation’ and ‘mentally retarded’ from federal education, health, and labor laws.
Of course, many words in our language have a discriminatory origin, and there’s a spectrum of acceptable usage. We still say something’s ‘lame’ and talk about ‘crippling’ anxiety and something being ‘dumb’. We describe people as ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, even ‘schizo’, a term which has also caused controversy. It’s arguable that the usage of many, but not all, of these words has moved on from its original context. But as demonstrated by campaigns like The R Word, a movement which has focused on campaigning against the use of the word in popular culture and public discourse, the venom hasn’t leached yet out of terms like ‘retard’ or its equally negative synonyms yet. It was for this reason that the Black Eyed Peas recorded a cleaner version of ‘Let’s Get Retarded’, changing it to ‘Let’s Get it Started’, and columnist Dan Savage renounced use of the term a few years ago.
As a comedian or satirist, someone’s always going to be offended by what you say, and if you’re constantly self-censoring, you’ll lose that vital spark that gives your words colour and life. So attempting avoiding offence to everyone and all groups is clearly nonsensical. But when you risk causing hurt to, or reinforcing prejudice against, a fairly marginalised group who aren’t necessarily able to stand up for themselves, it’s worth considering whether you really need to use these potentially hurtful words. And I just can’t think of an instance where it’s worth it.
Cross-posted at WhyDev.