Tuesday, September 15, 2009

‘R-word ’ is label that can hurt

Should the word "retarded" be retired from popular usage? The question is circulating this week among readers of Justice for All, an e-mail publication of the American Association of People with Disabilities. I think it is worth considering.

The AAPD reposted a link to an article by Neda Ulaby on www.npr.org. The article can be found under Arts & Life: Pop Culture.

 In the article, E. Duff Wrobbel, the father of a child who was born with Down syndrome, relates how he caught himself applying the r-word to a driver who had just cut him off. "And I actually said that word ... And then I stopped my car and got teary. And I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I just said that.'"

Wrobbel now campaigns with other activists against the word "retard," arguing that it's hate speech and not a hilarious put-down.

The article notes that medical and social service organizations have already retired the r-word and apply the term "intellectual disabilities" instead.

But Jesse Sheidlower, an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, argues that the term is not meant to be taken literally.

"'Retarded,' like 'gay,' functions as an all-purpose put-down," he states in the NPR article. "If you say, 'Stop being so gay,' or 'That movie was retarded,' it's not meant to be taken literally — as in 'Stop being so homosexual,' or 'That movie was intellectually disabled.' That differentiates those words from racist slurs."

But can Sheidlower honestly say these words are never applied as pejoratives against human beings? Wrobbel's own experience suggests otherwise.

I think reactions to the r-word can be intensely personal. Examining some of the comments that were posted in response to the NPR article, I believe other people feel the same way.

A person in my family once told me I was "retarded." She didn't specify which traits of mine she believed to be under-developed, so I interpreted the r-word to to apply to my entire being.

Like the scarlet "A" on the breast of Hester Prynne, I felt like this person had branded me with an enormous "R" that summed up everything there was to know about me and dismissed me as being of no worth. I think that is a very damaging message to send.

My early experience with pejoratives included latching onto a word whose explosive fire-cracker sound was irrresistible to me. I had vivid images in my head from the Batman show, where similar words would appear on-screen with each swing of the caped crusader's fist.

With no knowledge that this particular word was a racial slur, I debuted my use of it by appending it to a high school teacher's nickname and uttering it to his face. Fortunately, I was not punished but was told what the word meant. As abruptly as I had first used the word, I retired it from my vocabulary.

Earlier still, I brought a doll to my elementary school who had a prominent grin that the Cheshire Cat would have envied. For me, this grin was by far the doll's most pronounced feature. I was fascinated by the grin's sheer unambiguity and can see it in my mind to this day.

A classmate said my doll was "gay" in a tone that seemed very negative. I asked the vice principal what "gay" meant and he told me it meant "happy."

At the time, I was satisfied with the vice-principal's definition. It made complete sense to me that someone would use "gay" to describe a doll that was so obviously happy; but at the same time I was puzzled as to why this would be something negative.

In later life, I acquired two insights: one being that the word "gay" had an entirely separate meaning from what the vice-principal told me. But I also observed that our society tends to disparage happiness, especially when displayed by adults.

I'm glad to see our society examining whether certain words give offense. Consider that, as the article points out, other hateful, derogatory terms have already disappeared from most people's vocabularies.

"What happens is, if you're lucky, you come to understand those words describe actual human beings," says Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Yes, they do. And those labels can hurt.

Published Sept. 15, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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