“Are you retarded?”
Let’s be honest: we’ve all heard the above. And most of us know it’s incredibly offensive. So why do we keep saying it?
Using disability as an insult has been around longer than any of us have been alive. Although “retard” is a fairly recent insult (it gained widespread use in the 1960s as an alternative to “disability” because the original meaning of “retard” is to slow down or diminish), the use of dehumanising language towards or regarding people with physical or mental disabilities has been around for centuries.
We know that using misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and xenophobic language is never OK. So why are we so quick to call someone or something “retarded?”
Perhaps it has something to do with society seeing people who are living with disabilities as “defective” somehow. Following this logic, it’s perfectly fine to make fun of such people, because they’re not fully human. Not only is that a monstrous (and disturbing) worldview, it’s uncomfortably similar to the “justification” some men use to oppress women (there is, of course, an actual school of thought that women are defective men).
It may sound condescending, but we really need to think about how we would feel if someone were using an offensive term as an insult and didn’t think we could understand them. Just because someone has a mental disability doesn’t mean they don’t recognize when they’re being made fun of.
Discussing how wrong it is to use demeaning, “ableist” language might sound like whinging, but it’s not. It’s a slippery slope from using insulting words to passing laws that actually hurt people. Don’t believe me? Aside from Jews and LGBTQ+ people, the first group of people the Nazis targeted during Hitler’s rise to power was people living with disabilities. And, like those other groups, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people living with disabilities were killed in the Holocaust just a few years later.
Sure, Aotearoa is not Nazi Germany, but we too have a legacy of abusing people living with disabilities. One need only to read up on what happened at the now-shuttered Lake Alice Hospital (in brief: children were forcibly subjected to electroconvulsive therapy against their will, among other horrors) – and the ongoing battle for victims to receive compensation, or even an apology – to learn about the horrific abuses people with disabilities have suffered right here in New Zealand.
So let’s make an effort to practise what we preach, and show compassion for people who may not have the same privilege we might enjoy. Instead of calling someone or something “retarded,” why can’t we just say “ridiculous?” Instead of “are you blind?” how about we say “did you not notice that?”
They’re simple changes, sure. But they can go a long way towards promoting a more tolerant, loving society. Isn’t that what we all want?