Why We Need to Retire the Word ‘Retard’

May 04, 2021 | Esha Nobbay

Language is the most established form of expression and communication among humans. While it acts as a facilitator of deeper understanding of one another, it also allows us to spew vile and hateful slurs at each other creating rifts between different sects of the community, and in society at large. We misuse the utilitarian gift of vocabulary to alienate those different from us; and one of the most targeted subgroups are the people with disabilities – people who are either physically or intellectually disabled or both.

Historically, linguistics has seen the morphing and mutating of words and their meanings over time. The evolution of language and its general change is a natural phenomenon that affects the semantics, syntax and so much more. For example, the term ‘retard’ comes from the Latin word ‘retardare’ meaning slow down. We use it even today with the same meaning in Physics, specifically the study of motion. The term ‘mental retardation’ was used as a genuine medical term for people with lower than average intelligence and slower than average mentation. Words like ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘idiot’ were just grades of mental retardation that over time have become synonyms for the term ‘stupid’, used in common parlance. Due to the stigma attached to these terms, the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders saw the replacement of the term ‘mental retardation’ with ‘intellectual developmental disability’; and ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘idiot’ with intellectual disability of mild, moderate and profound degree respectively.

Categorizing persons and things based on preconceived notions comes naturally to humankind. It is a useful tool that simplifies and provides a shortcut to perceiving and understanding a new entity with reference to pre-existing entities. However, we must be aware of our tendency to box people into categories based on social stereotypes and biases while trying to allow for deeper comprehension of an overall being rather than by one characteristic or identity peg. By slapping a label on someone, we consider one of their features as constituting their entire selfhood and encourage such an approach towards understanding fellow human beings. We steal from them the chance to understand themselves fully and rejoice in their complexity, their humanness; and steal from ourselves the chance to gain deeper perspective into their experiences. Persons with intellectual disabilities do not deserve to be defined by their disabilities. Their disability is a part of their identity, not its entirety.

Semantics is fluid. Words of acclamation can turn into hurtful curse words over the course of a decade. Words are not damaging on their own but due to the stigma attached to them, they take on a cruel and derogatory character. When we call our friend who fails to understand our point a “retard” we may not feel like we are in the wrong, but are effectually calling them a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), and implying that it as an insult, as if the personhood of an individual with IDD is derogatory and pathological. This is clearly not factual and in turn damages how society perceives people with IDD as well as the self-perception of people with IDD.

In a world where being politically correct is abhorred and it is commonplace to call each other “too sensitive” for daring to find something offensive, let us choose the path of kindness. We, as a society, need to change the way we look at people with disabilities. Embracing them with a spirit of inclusion will enable them as well as humanity to reach its full potential.

About the Author: Esha Nobbay is a medical student at Father Muller Medical College, Mangalore who is currently interning at Amrit Foundation of India. Her fields of interest are Psychiatry and Geriatrics.