Slang that stings…

It was one of those moments when you take inventory of yourself as a parent — wondering, do I have the wherewithal to be a strong advocate for my child?

At a support group for parents of children with disabilities two years ago, a mother shared a story of how she responded to the casual use of the word ‘retard’ in a meeting filled with highly-educated executives. As a mother to a child with a developmental disability, it upset her that individuals with large vocabularies would use the word in a professional environment, and also, use it incorrectly. Her story became the catalyst for tackling the casual, slang, and oftentimes incorrect use of the word ‘retard’ or ‘retarded.’

Here in New England specifically, residents often use the word in casual dialogue -- ‘that’s so retarded’ or ‘you are being such a retard.’ To individuals with developmental delays or their family members or friends, casual use of the word can be extremely upsetting.

To avoid criticism that replacement of the word ‘retard’ is a form of censorship and an attempt to add one more word to a growing list of politically correct (‘PC’) terms, it should be made clear that raising awareness is not an effort to be ‘PC,’ but rather, to educate others as to how frustrating and irritating it can be to individuals and families who find its slang use demeaning, cruel and thoughtless. The reality is that the term is being used incorrectly and therefore, should be modified -- for accuracy sake.

According to Webster, ‘retard’ and various iterations, means to move or proceed slowly, delay, impede or hinder progress. Therefore, when someone says, “You are being such a retard,’ do they mean to say, “You are hindering progress?’

The true definition of the word has morphed into several slang meanings — predominantly to disparage a person for foolish, silly or socially-inept behavior. “The use of the word ‘retarded’ as an adjective in modern slang insults and hurts anyone in earshot who has, or loves someone with a developmental difference,” said Louann Larson, family support division director at the North Shore Arc in Danvers. “Although the definition is clear, it has now come to mean stupid or worthy of ridicule — and has become commonplace and acceptable in our society.”

Support for Larson’s perspective can be found in the 2003 release of “Let’s Get Retarded” by the Black Eyed Peas. While the slang use of the word retarded on the West coast, where the band hails from means, ‘get wasted or get smashed,’ it was clearly offensive to the mentally challenged. Because of its offensive nature, the musical group decided to modify the lyrics and re-release it for radio play as “Let’s Get It Started” -- at which time the song rocketed to the top of multiple musical charts and became the theme song to the 2004 NBA Playoffs on ABC.

Nadine Briggs, founder of Social Smart Kids™ of Westford, is a mother to a child with a developmental delay, with a personal and entrepreneurial mission to assist both adults and children in developing the skills needed to avoid social awkwardness. “I absolutely hate the ‘r’ word and refuse to even use it. In fact, if someone uses it in my presence and especially in the presence of my daughter, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, I’ll stop you and say something.”

After Briggs completed an in-class presentation to elementary age students, their parents and teachers about her daughter’s disability, she realized the impending need to consistently coach friends, neighbors, relatives, schoolmates and colleagues about how to address social scenarios containing an individual with a disability. She therefore has taken a positive and proactive approach to alter the way people use certain terms — and the slang use of ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ tops her list.

“My blood pressure actually rises when I hear people using the word since I don’t think they realize how casually they are using it, or how hurtful it can be to those around them. What’s more, when parents use the term, it perpetuates the use of it by their children — the very same children that will attend school with my daughter or other individuals with developmental delays — to whom it could be extremely offensive.”

Understanding well that many people dislike being corrected (especially in public), Briggs has created a coaching technique to use when wanting to help others find different words to use—rather than demeaning or offensive ones. “The way I deal with it is to put my hand on the person's arm (if I know them) so they know that I'm speaking to them. Once I have their attention, I ask them to not use that (the offensive) word.”

Briggs recommends that the request be made in a tone that is non-accusatory, kind, and meant to raises awareness that the word is offensive and other word selections exist to replace the hurtful word. She handles the situation the same way when dealing with children, but adds additional explanation that although it’s not a swear word, it is a hurtful word, and gives alternate word choices to use.

According to Larson, “When we use the term ‘retarded,’ or when we sit back without comment and allow some of the most vulnerable members of our community to be demeaned, we are all diminished.”


Retard \Re*tard\, v. t. [imp. & p. p. Retarded; p. pr. & vb.
n. Retarding.] [L. retardare, retardatum; pref. re- re- +
tardare to make slow, to delay, fr. tardus slow: cf. F.
retarder. See Tardy.]
1. To keep delaying; to continue to hinder; to prevent from
progress; to render more slow in progress; to impede; to
hinder; as, to retard the march of an army; to retard the
motion of a ship; -- opposed to accelerate.
Syn: To impede; hinder; obstruct; detain; delay;
procrastinate; postpone; defer.

Wendy Bulawa is the Special Needs columnist for Parents and Kids. The column is dedicated to providing information about special needs topics of interest and related resources for parents.

By Wendy Bulawa
GateHouse News Service
Thu May 24, 2007, 10:21 AM EDT