For the most part, it appears that the word “retard” is slowly making its way out of the vocabulary in the communities I inhabit. This is certainly not to say that the word is not still used, but it definitely seems to be declining in its use and I am thankful. It has been a little over seven years since President Barack Obama signed “Rosa’s Law,” changing the nomenclature used in federal documents to “intellectual disability” from “mental retardation.” This reflected both a fairly long-standing professional recognition that “retardation” had become a loaded term — it was first used as a slur in the 1950s — and a subsequent desire to de-charge the terminology used around psychological disability.
As has always happened, other words and concepts are coming in to take its place. Harmful use of the name of a disability — particularly in relationship to a psychological disability — to denote someone as “stupid” or otherwise less valuable has existed since psychology first developed as a field of study.
Our use of the words “moron,” “imbecile,” “idiot,” and others stem from this same process. Historically, these words were used clinically to denote certain levels of IQ, but they became used as a way to exclude persons with these diagnoses as well as to deride others — in a way that directly signals that they are less welcome or less able to be part of our society.
This continuing pejoration is denoted by Stephen Pinker as the “euphemism treadmill,” as “official” or “regular” words begin to be used negatively, new words are created, and they are used until they become negative.
I have particularly strong feelings about the overextension of “political correctness” — I know, it is a loaded phrase; that is the point — in current language usage. Psychological disorders — as well as other disabilities — feel like an important area where many people are not recognizing the impact they have through their speech and actions. I think this particularly goes for those who might otherwise see themselves as fairly thoughtful.
In the past number of years, I have noted a substantial uptick in derisive memes relating to autism and Down Syndrome in the same manner — these disorders are used almost interchangeably with how I heard “retard” used when I was in middle school. This is concerning not simply because it shows the latest evolution in a long history of disparaging those with mental illnesses, but also because it seems to be more pointed this time.
The term “retarded” was more broad and vague in that even clinically it was a larger category that encompassed many intellectual and developmental disorders. It is the same use of autism and Down Syndrome specifically that seems to indicate that not only are people corrupting the current generalized terms, but insults are more directly pulling in specific disorders and ridiculing those issues.
Disability is a socially determined concept, as is “acceptable” language use. There is value in recognizing the ways in which we speak and how it affects people who may hear us but say nothing. Specifically, how does the propagation of mental illness as a joke impact the communities we are a part of? Is it worth it?