Retard. Retarded. What do you think when you hear those words? The Special Olympics has started a campaign against the word, Spread The Word To End The Word, and today is its annual awareness Day.

Ellen Seidman
March 06, 2013

Retard. Retarded. What do you think when you hear those words?

Maybe their slang usage. As in, "That email the boss sent about cleaning up the office fridge was so retarded!" Or, "I am such a retard, I left the concert tickets at home!"

Here's what I think when I hear those words or see them on Twitter (as I often do): I hear you slamming my son, and other kids and adults with cognitive impairment.

Huh? you're thinking. What are you talking about? I don't even know your son.

Let me introduce you.

This is Max. He's 10, and he has cerebral palsy caused by a stroke at birth (yes, babies can have strokes—about 1 in 2800 do, stats say). Doctors told us Max might never talk or walk, that he could have cognitive impairment. My husband and I braced ourselves for the worse.

Max does have cognitive delays. He has challenges using his hands, because CP messes with muscle movement. But by god, Max walks. He has some speech. He's funny, charming, curious about the world. This boy's had major triumphs—yet the one thing he cannot overcome is how people perceive him. Adults often pity him. Kids gape, point or just don't want to talk with him. And this is damn crappy, because Max is an incredibly social, funny kid.

There are a lot of stereotypes and negative perceptions out there about kids and adults with disability. They are not like the rest of us—or as good as the rest of us, the thinking goes. They are lesser human beings. Defective ones.

And this, friends, is where the word "retard" comes in.

Years ago, "mental retardation" was an official medical diagnosis. But over the years, the word "retarded" took on a pejorative meaning. Today, "retard" and "that's retarded!" basically mean a  person is being uncool, loser-like or stupid. Flinging around the words—even when you're just jokingly poking fun at a friend—unintentionally makes people connect those with intellectual disability with being uncool, loser-like or stupid.

Now, perhaps you're thinking parents like me are being overly sensitive, or asking too much when we say please use another word. It's not just us: the Special Olympics itself has started a campaign against the word, Spread The Word To End The Word, and today is its annual awareness Day. Plenty of people who have intellectual disability themselves have spoken about how hurtful and demeaning the words are, including the Special Olympics athlete who wrote an open letter to Ann Coulter after she referred to President Obama as a "retard." In 2010, Congress dropped the words "mental retardation" and "mentally" retarded from federal legislation and replaced them with "intellectual disability"—and 43 states have made similar efforts.

Yes, I sure do have better things to do with my time than think and speak out about one measly word, but this is no small thing. Do I sound a wee bit defensive? That's probably because I've gotten jumped on a lot about this seeming effort to crush freedom of speech. But make no mistake, this word has become an epithet. Do you freely use those? No, right? RIGHT?!

You're a smart, creative person—I know you can think of better words to use.

Here. I made this video, I hope it helps you better understand.

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