Retard. Gay. Slut. Our language's vernacular is embedded with slurs such as these, used on a daily basis without regard to what they denote. These terms are used thoughtlessly, in a derogatory and offensive manner, to put people down. The term "retarded" has become so standard that even intelligent and thoughtful people use it to describe something as stupid or senseless. Our society is so accustomed to using the term that we do not even realize its effect.
Two summers ago, I had one of the most uplifting and eye-opening experiences of my life. I worked as a counselor at Camp Starfish, a summer camp for children with mental, behavioral, and emotional difficulties. Living with these campers for three months opened my eyes to their daily struggles; yet, the strength and positivity they radiated through their difficulties blew me away. They are some of the most inspirational, loving individuals I have ever met. It breaks my heart to imagine anyone hurting or victimizing any of them. Why do we employ a term used to describe their medical issues in such a derogatory, demeaning manner?
The problem is that people forget that the term they are using is the equivalent of a racial or gender slur. You mean to hurt the person or thing you are describing, but do you really mean to perpetuate this negative stereotype? There are literally hundreds of other terms you can use to describe a bothersome stimulus, so steer clear of this one. Rather than distancing ourselves from the true meaning of "retard," we must humanize individuals with disabilities and recognize that the use of the term is personally deprecating. You inadvertently categorize these people into a singular group, founded upon stereotypes, prejudice, and inequality. Whether you realize it or not, there are individuals in this world who look up to you. Is this the message we want to be delivering to future generations? Children in schools are running around calling each other "retarded" without recognizing the effect that language has. And those who fall into this category of special needs are given the message that it is an insult to be someone like them. Think about the effect that has on a child's self-worth as they attempt to grow up in a society that inadvertently affronts them.
There is such a strong stigma surrounding mental illness, and the callous use of this term is only furthering this effect. Individuals fear being diagnosed with any sort of mental difficulty because it makes them feel different and less worthy. Using the word "retarded" in a belittling manner is only perpetuating that stigma. The use of this term is directly making other individuals feel like lesser human beings. Is this really what you want your impact to be on this world? According to the new Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, 46.4 percent of Americans will have diagnosable mental illnesses in their lifetimes. That's almost half of our population. Just because a developmental disability does not manifest physically, it does not mean an individual does not have an issue, so if you think you can monitor your use of the term around those not impacted, think again.
Still not convinced? Imagine the case of a deaf, blind, or paralyzed individual. Would you use their disabilities in terms of insults? To put it into perspective, try replacing the term "retarded" with "handicapped" and see what happens. Imagine your child, your sibling, or your parent struggling with a mental difficulty, and through it all being surround by people with the r-word on their lips. And if you make the argument that we all have the right to free speech, and you're not "saying it offensively," then you are missing the point. This is not about political correctness or your right to free speech. It's about respect, thoughtfulness, and humanity. It's about erasing ignorance from our society and recognizing the hardships that these individuals go through. Individuals with mental difficulties experience an entirely different world—yet they emerge just as successful as those without that handicap. To overcome all they have to and still have a positive outlook on life? There's nothing derogatory about that. It's honorable.
I recently took the pledge to spread the word to end the word. You can too, just click here. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.