Retard: It’s Not What You Think It Means

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“You’re such a RETARD!”  Tell me, what does this phrase mean to you?  Do you automatically laugh and think it means that someone is stupid or acting like and idiot?  Does it mean that someone is unable to understand what’s going on?

Maybe you think it means that someone is acting childish, absurd, irresponsible or that they’re dull and lack personality.  Did you nod your head and say yes to any of the questions above?  First, I thank you for answering truthfully, but you’ve also proven the point that my intention to Spread the Word to End the Word today is worthwhile.

 Retard: It's Not What You Think It Means - breething.com (For the 2014 Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign to eliminate the use of the word

 Take a look at the picture below.  Okay, so it’s kind of grainy; that’s 1980s photography for you.  But do you see that little girl with the pigtails.  Isn’t she cute?  What a smile!

My sister, Krisitin: My Hero & My Smile Maker! - breething.com

Did you know that that same cute little pigtailed girl is medically classified as Mentally Retarded?  Did you know that that same little girl, who despite the fact that she happens to be stuck in a body that limits her, is one of the smartest and funniest people that I know.  That same little girl is my big sister, Kristin.  (That’s my little arm there, beside her.)

So you see, I have a BIG issue with the word RETARD.  My sister, though medically classified as such since she has Cerebral Palsy, is not any of those things that you say “Retard” means.  She’s not stupid or an idiot.  She clearly understands things going on around her, as she laughs at jokes that we assume are over her head, and knows who is on the phone by listening to only one side of the conversation.  She has her moments of acting childish, who doesn’t?  But she is not absurd, irresponsible and she definitely is not dull or lacking in personality.  The girl’s personality reigns supreme!

So today I’m here to change your mind on what you feel is the definition of that R-word.  You’re probably doubt that a simple blog post is going to be able to do that, but I’m sure willing to give it a try!

Take a look at this wonderful PSA put together by two beautiful actresses from the TV show, Glee.

Thoughts?  Pretty powerful message, huh?

I’m also here today to change your attitude towards people with differences through the campaign Spread the Word to End the Word.

What is this Campaign All About?

Question: What is Spread the Word to End the Word?

Answer: Spread the Word to End the Word is an on-going effort to raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word “retard(ed)” and encourage people to pledge to stop using the R-Word. The campaign is intended to get schools, communities and organizations to rally and pledge their support to help create communities of inclusion and acceptance for all people. (Source)

So have I changed your mind yet?  Here are a couple of ways to take action if so…

3 Easy Ways to Eliminate the R-Word from Your Vocabulary

There’s an incredible article on Wikihow that shares tips on how to avoid using the word retarded and I want to highlight three of the tips they share: 

  1. Keep the Actual Definition in Mind
    Webster defines the word “retard” as to slow down the development or progress of (something).  This term is used in medical classifications of individuals with intellectual disabilities, so if you call someone else “a retard” in a manner that is to insult them, you are actually suggesting that having an intellectual disability is something to make fun of or to tease about, which it is not.
  2. Use the Words That You Mean When Expressing Your Feelings
    If you don’t like something, use the proper terms to express your thoughts, such as saying it is “stupid”, “dumb” or “awful” instead of “retarded”.  In the same manner, do not say “that’s retarded” when you really mean that something is “lame”, “stupid”, “dumb” or “wrong”.

    Also you should never call someone you don’t like “retarded” as the term does not apply.  Use words that express the truth about the persons actions or behavior so that you do not risk offending those whom the word “retarded” does apply.

  3. Avoid Using the Term for People Who Have Intellectual Disabilities
    Instead of risking offending the person since the word “retarded” is often used inappropriately, use the term that they are actually classified as, such as they have a “cognitive disability” or an “intellectual disability”.  These terms are more socially accepted and are less threatening or offensive to those with these disabilities. (Source)

Not Sure What Else To Say In Place of the R-Word?

Terri Mauro has come up with an incredible list of 225 Substitutes for the R-Word.  Check out the list and work on expanding your vocabulary so you can…

  • Sound more intelligent expressing what you truly mean, and
  • Eliminate the use of the R-Word in a manner that is derogatory and offensive

What To Do If You Hear the R-Word

The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign offers this advice…

  • Stay calm and collected, it will not help the other person see your point if you are angry or emotional
  • Try to understand the reason he/she disagrees with you.  Listen, be respectful and then provide a counterargument that highlights the harmful and hurtful effects of using the R-Word.
  • Share a personal story about why the R-Word is hurtful to you.  Personal stories will help people easily relate to what you are saying because it illustrates your personal commitment to the campaign. (Source)

There are times, situations and personalities sometimes involved that may not be best suited for an immediate intervention when you hear someone use the R-Word. It simply may be best at times to walk away from a situation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still do good after walking away.  (Source)

Take a Stand and Contact Your Local Government
As of March 2012, there were 15 states to have issued proclamations to remove the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy and replace them with “individual with an intellectual disability” and “intellectual disability”.  However, there are many more who need to be made aware of what an affect these terms can have and how they are being misused in everyday language.  Do you feel called to take a stand?  Learn more about how to proceed here.

Additional articles encouraging eliminating the use of the R-Word:


Did you change your mind about the meaning and how you will use the word “Retarded” in the future?

My sister, Krisitin: My Hero & My Smile Maker! - breething.com

If so, I’d love for you to join me in speaking out through the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.  Simply click on the button below to pledge your support of those with intellectual disabilities!

Still looking for a reason?  Check out that smile to the left.  She doesn’t wear her hair in pigtails any more, but the smile is still the same.  And she’s still my hero!

Do it for Kristin!



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  1. My son IS… well, retarded. The term “developmentally delayed” angers me, because he will *never* catch up. “Intellectually disabled” sounds awfully PC to me. I understand not wanting people to use the R word to mean stupid. I have the same problem with people saying, “That’s so lame,” because two of my daughters have limb differences and wear prosthetic legs. But “mentally retarded” is a legitimate medical diagnosis. One that lives in my house every day. Calling it something else isn’t going to make it easier.

    1. Shecki,
      I appreciate your comments. This is a controversial topic and one that hits home for many people across the globe. I understand your point of view regarding the labels of those who have differences, I struggle with them myself, however, my point of this post is not to change the label for those with disabilities per se, but rather that the term “retard” or “retarded” to be eliminated from people’s vocabulary in the sense that is often misused, as meaning stupid, dumb, ignorant, etc., because your son and my sister are not those things.

  2. I like what Shecki has to say. I also have two family members who are retarded. One has Down Syndrome. He doesn’t like people to say “Down Syndrome” in his presence – we generally honor that request. But, it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you have to use the correct medical terminology, and not make PC words. The PC words don’t change the reality for any of us. And, I see “Intellectual Disability” as insulting – I don’t see my relatives as irreparably stupid as this term could be seen to imply (on some things they know more than I) – I rather see them as slower to learn certain life skills or facts – which is what the word “Retarded” means.
    I 100% agree that we should not use “retard” as an insult.

    1. Anna, I too thank you for your comments and your willingness to not offend your family members. The support of family is crucial to these sweet individuals and I’m happy to know that you have their back!
      As I mentioned in my response to Shecki, while I understand that the labels of these individuals is very controversial and that everyone has their own thoughts on what the proper terms should be, (case in point, I referred to my sister has being mentally retarded, while the campaign and other articles use the term ID), the point of this post is not regarding the proper medical terminology, but rather encouraging others to stop using the terms “retard” and “retarded” in an insulting manner. Nonetheless, I thank you for your time and willingness to share in the discussion!

  3. I love Kristen too! I’ve even known her longer than you! She was in a group that I volunteered with at Easter Seals when I was in college. Folks with limited vocabulary frequently use hurtful words! Love you and I enjoyed your article! God bless, Sheri

    1. Sheri, I had no idea that you had worked with Kris at Easter Seals! Small world! Thank you so much for stopping by and reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Much love!

  4. I often cringe when I think back at how many hurtful words I unknowingly used when I was young….and sadly all through college too. Calling things “gay” and “retarded” to mean stupid were just part of my vocabulary. No second thought. I didn’t mean anything by them but I did it anyway. I was part of the problem.
    I have a special needs nephew who is an absolute miracle child. CHARGE syndrome is a genetic disorder where the letters in CHARGE are an acronym for the set of congenital features often found…the “r” standing for retardation of growth and/or development. Max is not stupid. Why would I take something that classifies his battle to fight for his life and minimize it to calling people dumb. Irresponsible on my part.
    So I stopped. It took a little while of reminding myself but I ended the word. I feel just as strongly about the word gay. It’s not about being overly sensitive. It’s being caring and compassionate and understanding of the world around you. 🙂

    1. Katy,
      You’re not alone. When it’s common place to use a word (no matter how derogatory it is) people often don’t think about how its use affects others, or even realize it affects others at all. I’m proud of you for taking the notion to remove the word from your vocabulary in that sense.
      On a completely different note, my family has followed your nephew’s progress through the years. I forget what the connection is now, but my mom has followed his care pages and it was through this that we learned about the program, Signing Time that we use with my older sister, to encourage her to continue to use her sign language in communicating with us. Her vocabulary has exploded over the past few years since watching the program (something we never expected, thinking we were beyond the learning curve with her) and it was one reason that I decided to go back to school to become an interpreter. So we’re more connected than we thought! 🙂

  5. I too had a big sister who was retarded and have hated the derogatory use of that word for as long as I can remember. This campaign is so incredibly important. Thank you for such a well-written post.

    1. Jessica,
      Thank you for your encouragement and such kind words. Growing up, I didn’t like talking about how my sister was “different”, but I am so blessed to have come to the realization that if she were given the opportunity, she would stick up for me too. Many blessings to you and your family!

  6. Great post and thanks for campaigning against the misuse of this word. I can imagine this word to be just as hurtful as something I have more experience with and that is a racial slur. Keep fighting xo

    1. Rene,
      I never made the connection before, but yes, I think you’re right. The “R-word” in my eyes is just as hurtful as a racial slur would be to you or others who have different colored skin or family heritage. Even though this campaign is about one word in particular, I hope that it inspires others to consider how their words can affect others. We’re all people; each of us unique and as different as the snowflakes that fall from the sky. We should celebrate that instead of tearing each other down. God bless!

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