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An Open Letter to People Who Use the Word Retarded – For National Anti-Bullying Month

I had a problem today in an online community I belong to. There was a discussion about being respectful to each other, and I reminded people that it was disrespectful to use words like retarded, gay, and rape in a derogatory or flippant manner. I can sum up one of the longer responses to this with one line from the reply: “Playing word police is retarded.”

I got upset. I got very angry. And I started to cry. Then I started to write. This is what I wrote:

two young girls laughing behind another girls back

If you think there’s nothing wrong with the word retarded, clearly you’ve never been called retarded because you were different or heard people call your family member who is mentally retarded a retard. It is disrespectful. It is offensive. You have no idea what sort of a trigger word it is. And every time someone uses it knowing I’m offended by it, it shows how little respect you have for my feelings and others who may also take offense but suffer through it silently.

I don’t use words like the one that rhymes with duck or the one that rhymes with spit, but they do not offend me. You want to curse up a storm, I don’t care. But the casual way people toss around “retarded” offends me every. single. time. And I’ve said this before, and I was brushed aside. Respect. I know I don’t have it. So many people have made that VERY clear.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s a form of autism. My son has Asperger’s Syndrome. I have a cousin who is so severely autistic that he is nonverbal and has a very low IQ. Retarded is thrown at autistic people as a slur all the time. I’ve heard my cousin called a retard. I didn’t know I had Asperger’s until this year, but kids in school called me retarded all the time. It certainly didn’t help that I was pulled out of school once a week in 5th and 6th grade for a gifted & talented program that was held in the county special education building. I was bullied by classmates and even teachers for this.

You think it’s a word. You call me the word police like I’m just arbitrarily trying to get you to stop saying something that doesn’t mean anything. You re-traumatize me when you belittle a “stupid word’s” importance. I get brought back to the days I would come home from school crying, so much that my mom called the school about it only to have the teacher tell her he wouldn’t stop bullying me until I stopped missing his class once a week for the school-sponsored enrichment program. I didn’t quit the program, so he didn’t stop bullying me.

Same with when people use the word rape to describe anything happening [in the online game we play]. You don’t know who among our membership has actually been through such a horrible trauma. Or how it feels to hold the hand of an 8 year old girl in the hospital emergency room while she has a rape kit done because her father and her brother passed her back and forth before she was admitted to the psychiatric unit where you worked. [For anyone who isn't an online gamer, way too many gamers claimed they were "raped" when an enemy character killed them, or they were going to go "rape" some enemy players to cause trouble. This bothers me even more than the word retarded.]

They’re not just words. They are charged words with a real emotional tie for some people. It is RUDE, DISRESPECTFUL, and OFFENSIVE to continue using them because, boo hoo, you don’t want to self-censor.

I am tired of explaining why the word “retarded” is so offensive to me. I am tired of hearing that people disdain “political correctness.” It’s not political correctness. It’s basic human decency. I hate that people think it’s okay to tell me, “I’ll try not to use the word when you’re around because I know it bothers you, but I’m not going to stop saying it,” because that doesn’t actually signify respect for me or the power that words have. Yeah, thanks for not re-traumatizing me by bringing back the horrible year I had in school where I was bullied by students and teachers alike…but who else will you re-traumatize as you continue to say it around others?

If I ever hear that someone has called TJ by that word, I am going to flip the hell out over it. Where do kids learn it? From adults who think it’s okay to keep these words in their derogatory vocabulary. People who claim to respect me but retain the mindset that it doesn’t matter what they say.

Do I have thin skin? Yes. Am I oversensitive? Yes. How did I get that way? Oh right. I was bullied during my formative years and made to feel like I was “less than.” No one ever physically assaulted me, but their words cut me with wounds that can still be re-opened. I was blessedly naive and rather ignorant of any type of malice until the sixth grade. The verbal abuse I endured that year turned a confident child into someone who would struggle with self-esteem for the next 20 years…and is still struggling.

If you can shrug off insults or words that could hurt you, good for you. But there are millions of us who can’t. There are millions of us who suffered for years at the hands of cruel tormentors, before society started to acknowledge that bullying needed to be stopped. You may not have been the one to say horrible things about us, and you may not even intend for your words to be malicious now, but your words do hurt. And we will rarely tell you how much you’ve hurt us, because we’ve been made to feel ashamed at the weakness that allowed us to be hurt by mere words.

I try not to let careless words have power over me, but sometimes I am just more vulnerable than others. This isn’t the first time I’ve had such a visceral reaction, and I know it won’t be the last.

October is Anti-Bullying Month. I ask you to look at the words you use. You may be bullying others with your vocabulary and you don’t even know it.

Christina Gleason (836 Posts)

That’s me: Christina Gleason. I’m a professional copywriter, editor, and blogger. My company is called Phenomenal Content. (Hire me!) I’m a relatively high-functioning Aspie who also lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. I am not ashamed to admit that I am in the care of a psychiatrist, who assures me that people in therapy are often better adjusted than “normal” people who are not, because at least we know what our issues are and are working on them. I’m a geek for grammar, fantasy, and select types of gaming, including World of Warcraft and Plants vs Zombies 2. I hate vegetables. I have an intense phone phobia, so I’ll happily conduct business over email or IM instead. I have started writing no fewer than five novels, and I hope to finish one of them...eventually.

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{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Anonymous March 16, 2013, 10:19 pm

    I grew up in a different time when words like retarded and retard were used to describe anyone with a disability. I think the only time these words are offensive it when they’re used to make fun of people with a disability. I’m not even retarded but kids used to call me that all the time because I have a disability so don’t go around using those words to describe disabled people. Sorry, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings.

    • Christina March 17, 2013, 10:46 am

      You are only helping exacerbate the problem by thinking this is acceptable. The “N” word used to be “acceptable,” too.

  • Aline December 23, 2013, 10:59 pm

    I also grew up in a time when the word retarded was acceptably used to describe anyone whose IQ was below a certain number. It was also used by ignorant people as an insult, and by school children. The first time my mother heard my friends and I used it, (I didn’t know what it meant), my mother was really upset with me. She explained the accepted at the time, meaning of the word and how lucky I was to be born without any disabilities considering the cord was wrapped around my neck three times…She said one good blow to the head, could change my life and put me in someone else’s shoes, someone with a disability. She also said if she ever heard me say it again she might deliver the blow! I never did, I worked with the disabled for a while and now have a wonderful, beautiful, and yes..smart…and very much loved grandson who has Down’s syndrome and it breaks my heart thinking that someday someone might call him that. Sorry for your painful memories.

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