September 23, 2019

Why We Don’t Use the Word “Retarded” and Why You Shouldn’t Either

During our recent LA Federation Special Needs Mission in Israel, Danny Katz from the Welfare of Ministry took great pains to point out that they were changing the name of his department from “Adults with Mental Retardation” to “Adults with Intellectual Disabilities”, so that Israel, in Katz’s words “could keep in alignment with the United Nations and the rest of the world.”

It’s high time for everyone else to follow his example. I can’t think of a better time to start than during the Hebrew month of Elul, which began on Aug. 19th, since this month is traditionally a time set aside for self-reflection and “tshuvah” or repentance before the High Holidays.

And I’m not just talking about jerks and people who don’t know better. From my point of view, way too many well-meaning, good-hearted people use the word “retarded” all the time to talk about the computer that isn’t working, a non-responsive customer service department, even a politician that they don’t much like. At Jewish non-profits, day schools, and even at synagogues, you don’t have to spend much time hanging out before the “r-word” pops up again and again.

Ironically, the term “mentally retarded” was first used in the 1950s to replace such derogatory terms as “feeble-minded” and “imbecile” and in the world of special education, there was a clear distinction between “educable retarded”, those students who can progress academically to a late elementary level and “trainable mentally retarded” referring to students whose IQs were lower but who were still capable of learning basic living skills in a sheltered setting, such as a group home.

The sting of hearing those terms applied to my child, then aged four, was deep and bitter. Only by sharing my heartache with other moms did I start to turn from sadness to anger, and finally settled somewhere between defiance and advocacy.

Disability advocates around the world have been trying to get the official diagnostic description of someone who learns at a slower rate than same-age peers changed for many years, and the professional world has pretty much agreed to change over to the term “intellectually disabled”. State and federal governments have or are in the process of officially making this change to the laws and statues that address legal or policy issues around this population, but the changeover hasn’t quite made it fully into popular culture, even with the best efforts of the Special Olympics initiative with their “spread the word to stop the word” campaign.

At this point in time, “retarded” has long outlived its usefulness as a diagnostic category and has instead become the go-to word for late-night comedians for an easy laugh. The “r-word” needs to go the way of other ugly ethnic/sexual orientation slurs, and disappear from our daily conversation.

We can all draw inspiration for this holy work from the words of Psalm 27, traditionally read daily during the month of Elul:

“Show me Your ways, O God,
And lead me on a just path”