BY: REGAN MCNEILL
Do you know that scene in the film Tropic Thunder when Robert Downey Junior’s character tells Ben Stiller that going “full retard” never works for actors? Even if you haven’t seen Tropic Thunder this is all you really need to know: in a previous role Ben Stiller’s character played an intellectually-disabled individual in a movie that flopped. Downey Junior’s character tells Stiller that all the successful movies starring “retards” like Forrest Gump and Rainman have leads that aren’t actually fully “retarded” (which is apparently why I am Sam dived at the box office as well). I guess Hollywood only likes movies with specially skilled “retards”.
Yes, this scene makes a good point: the movies we see do not generally star intellectually or physically disabled leads unless they have some sort of fantastic skill. In fact, most movies use actors without special needs to play a person with special needs. But that’s a whole other story.
As I sat there watching this exchange between the two characters on the screen (one of which was also in blackface), the word “retard” flung at me with the most brute force, over and over. Beneath the crowd’s roaring laughs and snickers of excitement, I could not help but have a difficult time digesting what social commentary the scene had to offer. Instead all I could do was wonder: what was so funny about the word “retard” and why was it being said so much?
I don’t know about you, but I do not like the word “retard.’ I hear it all the time: “that’s retarded,” “you’re such a retard,” “let’s get retarded.” It’s become commonplace in our vocabulary and once people start saying it, it’s almost like they can’t stop. Sometimes, when the timing seems appropriate, I kindly like to inform them that they should probably avoid using the R-word because they could be offending a whole lot of people without actually knowing it. And like most people I say this to, you’re probably thinking I should chill the heck out because you likely did not mean the word in a way that was offensive to disabled people but rather to call someone or something stupid… Because that’s what it means right?
Wrong – when you use the word like that, you are using it to insult someone; it’s got more bite than “idiot” or “dummy” and has somehow evolved into modern-day speech alongside an abundance of other politically incorrect (or how about just incorrect?) racist, ableist and homophobic words.
The textbook definition of retard is “to slow down the development or progress of something.” In many cases the phrase “mental retardation” is and has been used in medical and professional terminology. In the 1960s, The American Psychiatric Association adopted “mental retardation” for use in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders to describe those deficient in cognitive functioning and/or living with mental disorders. This was meant to supplant the prior, more obviously pejorative, terms like “feeblemindedness, idiocy and mental subnormality.”
Look at it this way, the word “retard” has evolved out of a need to classify a completely diverse and unique group of people living with an array of intellectual and/or mental disabilities. “Mental retardation” was meant to replace older and more outwardly offensive terms, but does this make it any less offensive?
Here’s the real kicker; in America the term “mental retardation” was not replaced until 2013 with Obama’s enactment of Rosa’s Law. But unfortunately The World Health Organization still uses the term “mental retardation” in its manual for the International Classification of Diseases, which is not set to change until 2018.
You have to understand that this Band-Aid solution of trying to mask the past is the nature of history itself; humans try to cover up things they don’t want to remember. The word “retard” ties into this whole solution of trying to hide a past where disabled people were oppressed simply for being different. Recall Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, where Hitler’s program to make a pure Aryan race involved euthanizing all disabled people, regardless of race.
Think about the misunderstood, but mentally and emotionally aware, disabled people forced into insane asylums across North America in the 1930s, whose families wouldn’t visit them because it was socially disgraceful. Imagine how scary it must be to be singled out and told you cannot live a normal life because you are different? Imagine if it was institutionalized and socially acceptable. The R-word is a manifestation of all these things. Is that what you are supporting when you say it? Probably not, so what’s the point of saying it at all?
Killing and/or institutionalizing disabled people have occurred at many points throughout history and labels only work towards these things. We have slowly geared toward the acceptance of differences amongst people, but when you use the R-word you are connoting a history of exclusivity and oppression, one where intellectually, physically and mentally disabled individuals are not treated as individuals but rather a mistake in society. Not only this, but you are re-appropriating a word that people have long associated with disability and turning its meaning into something new – a general insult.
I am personally connected to this word because of my brother. My older brother Scott is intellectually and physically disabled. In spite of all the differences he may have from someone without a disability, he is just as (if not more) funny, smart, kind, loving and beautiful as any other human being on the planet.
Because of my brother, I’ve had the privilege to meet and form friendships with a lot of disabled people, throughout my childhood especially. I’d like to think this has afforded me the opportunity to be open to differences amongst people from very early on in my life. Not everyone grows up in an environment that teaches the value of acceptance and I am very fortunate for that.
But when it is all said and done, I can tell you one thing my brother has taught me, just by simply being. People with intellectual and physical disabilities are just people; they don’t want to be plagued with labels, especially an outdated medical one. When you use the R- word you are calling attention to an unfortunate societal construct and a history associated with the marginalization of disabled people, and you maybe didn’t even realize it.
So I hate to offend you R-word users for being ignorant, but you need to make a change.