advocacy · special needs parenting

How powerful should a certain word be?


A cluster of my most used words on Facebook.  I wonder why Meg and Ben aren’t there…

Words.  Words are the reason I’m here blogging.  Words matter, words have power.

Coming up on March 1 is a day dedicated to ending the use of one word.  It’s called “Spread the Word to End The Word”.


The word in question is the “r-word”, retard(ed).

  1. datedoffensive
    less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for one’s age.
    • informal offensive
      very foolish or stupid.
      “in retrospect, it was a totally retarded idea”

But I’m not certain about any of this.  I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s worth repeated discussion.

First, it’s important to say, that unless you are in private, you don’t know who hears you.  As for me, I have decided to guard my own heart and avoid allowing the word to hurt me, but I don’t get to decide how my kids do or will feel about it if it’s used in front of them, or worse yet, as a bullying tactic.  I also remember all to clearly those early days when I had yet to reconcile the word “retarded” to my child with Down syndrome.  That precious face, those almond eyes, his little poof of hair.  I had nothing but pure admiration for him, and many years later I still remember the sting of hearing girls in a dress shop refer to something or other as “retarded”.

It was soul crushing.

That was one of several incidents which led to my choice to step away from giving more power to a word than it deserves.  I simply cannot be caught in the crossfire of teenage conversations and allow their word choice to ruin my day.

Alex, between 9 and 12 months old. A better mom would remember…hur

BUT, and it’s a big but; if there are other words which would suffice, must we use a word that offends; a word that hurts?

If you do a Google search on the word “retarded”, and click “images”, this is what comes up.

Is this a stereotype you really want to perpetuate?

The face of Down syndrome is largely synonymous with retarded, and if you go by these graphics, it’s not a benevolent association.

However, words like “idiot” and “moron” are commonly used with absolute zero pushback.  Indeed, even “101 Dalmations”, a Disney movie, has a villain who freely uses the word “imbecile”.Below is a quote from the show “Murdoch Mysteries”, set in the late 1800’s.  (full transcript here)

I find it very hard to believe such a precise model was built by an imbecile.

Oooh. Sir, uh, I believe people such as Lydia are no longer referred to as “imbecile”.

It’s felt to be demeaning. The correct term nowadays is “moron”.

So how much power do want to give the word “retard”?  How much power to you want to give it?

If you use the word in public, would it matter to you if the mother/father/brother/sister, etc. of a person with cognitive impairment heard you and was crushed?  What if it was a person with cognitive impairment who heard you, and was crushed?  Would you be proud of your child who said it?  What if they were caught saying it in school?  Or using it as an insult or to bully someone?  Where is the line?  Where is your line?

I post this as a conversation starter.  I’m not jumping onto the “end the word” bandwagon, because I think there’s much more nuance and minutia to it than just ending a word that’s been in the English language for centuries.  What do you think?







One thought on “How powerful should a certain word be?

  1. I liked your very personal perspective. I discovered how I was using this word as I was teaching my daughter about appropriate language. I don’t use it in reference to a person, but I was often saying “that’s retarded,” meaning dumb or unnecessary. What I’ve tried to do is replace that word, not because it was derogatory on its own, but because there’s a whole lot of words out there that could be used instead. Words that make me sound more considerate. Why risk being associated with a hateful act just because you say a certain word? It’s not worth the misunderstanding to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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