Why I Quit Using the Word 'Retarded'

Filed under: Opinions

I'm a child of the '80s. We had our own lexicon back then. Words we used the way people now use "holla" and "unfriend."

One of the words was "whale," as in, "Seniors Whale," as in, seniors are really cool and far superior to all other forms of young people. Sadly, those in my high school senior class didn't whale as much as they thought they did, given that they painted "Seniors Wail" along the fence leading to Deerfield High School. (Chicago suburbs, holla!)

Another word in major rotation at the time was "retarded," as in, "that is so retarded," as in, that is really kind of silly or not funny or very dumb. We used that word all the time and thought nothing of it. Friends' behavior was retarded. Certain TV shows were retarded. All of the teachers and younger siblings of the world were retarded.

Because words like "awesome" and "whale" and "retarded" had become such a normal part of every day speech, I kept using them. They would flow out of me without a thought, just like "it" and "is." As I matured, though, some of my words, such as "retarded" or "gay," would make me wince as they tumbled out of my mouth.

I'd still say them, but I began to feel a twinge of guilt because I knew someone could take offense. Someone might think I was being hurtful when, really, it was just a silly word and who cares because, of course I don't mean it the bad way.

You can justify most anything if you say you don't have any ill intent, right?

Besides, let's not get all thought police and political correctness on everyone. There's no need to go overboard. We don't need to walk around on eggshells all the time worrying about how each super-sensitive person might take offense at a sideways glance or unfortunate adjective, do we?

Perhaps we do.

I'm a parent now, and I see how much other parents who love their children as desperately as I do are hurt when certain words are used cavalierly. I've been moved by moms like Ellen Seidman of the blog Love That Max whose son is a special needs child and who writes so convincingly about why it's just not necessary, and even downright hurtful, to use the word "retard."

She recently conducted an experiment to see if she could persuade people to stop using the word "retarded", and was met with some pretty offensive responses. Reading about how the experience made her worry for her son when he grows up -- and she's not around to protect him -- just about broke my heart.

I can't imagine saying something that would harm the child of another woman. Perhaps some other argument against the R-word should have moved me, but that's what did it. Hurting a mother and her child is where I have to draw the line, so I have completely eliminated "retarded" from my vocabulary.

Shockingly, or maybe not that shockingly, I feel no loss of freedom of speech. We have 250 million words in the English language according to the Oxford Dictionary, so it shouldn't overtax me to find another to express my thoughts. If I can't find the right word, I can hop back over to Love That Max and read her piece on alternatives to the R-word.

It's OK to grow up and realize you can pick and choose how you express yourself. And, while it's good to be authentic and free to be you and me, it's also good to recognize how words and actions affect others.

Let me apologize to those I have hurt in the past when I chose to use words that hurt, child of the '80s or not. I'm trying to do better. You deserve the effort.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.