Monday, March 25, 2013


We cannot be too careful about the words we use; 
we start out using them and they end up using us.

Eugene H. Peterson
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:  A Conversation in Spiritual Theology 

You hear it on the playground, in the classroom, among children who probably don’t know any better. But it also blooms like a weed on the big screen – in comedies - intended to incite the laughter of the mob.  There are non-verbal references, mocking motions – awkwardly curled hand beating chest – imitation of physical challenge.  There are jokes – using accents that mimic speech difficulties.  That word, those motions, those jokes – just playing around, just teasing, making fun.

Retard.  The word comes from the Latin retardare, "to make slow, delay, keep back, or hinder.”  We see it in music direction – ritardando – slowing down gradually. It is a verb.

And then it became a noun.  It became a noun used in a medical/psychological sense to describe conditions involving cognitive and developmental delays.  It became a noun used to replace previous nouns: cretin, idiot, imbecile, moron…..  It replaced those words, those nouns, those labels because somehow they had become derogatory.

Somehow?  Here’s the thing.  Retard is short for mentally retarded - a person whose learning is slowed, whose development is challenged.  However, when a child on the playground, or an adult in a movie calls someone a retard, or calls something retarded, they are not using the term as a medical or psychological description.  They are using the word as an insult, a mistake, a stupidity.  Which means they perceive the condition of being mentally retarded to be offensive.  Which means they find people who are mentally retarded offensive - insults, mistakes stupidity.

And then there’s my daughter – who has Down Syndrome.  And there are her friends – friends with autism, friends with seizure disorders, friends with Fragile X - any number of conditions that cause them to be differently abled.  Differently labeled.  They are not insults.  They are not stupid.  They are not mistakes.

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