by David Morstad
If faith communities are looking for ways to honor the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (July 26), boldly confronting the ‘R’ word deserves consideration.
The term mental retardation has largely disappeared from formal use because it has been acknowledged as offensive. The words retarded and retard, though? Even after several years of awareness-raising posters and public service announcements, they are, sadly, still in our collective vocabulary. I’m convinced it is because we surrender the argument too easily.
These days, we don’t need to confront the word as much as we need to confront its defense. From Op-Ed pieces in sources as credible as the Washington Post, to those who absurdly cite political correctness, use of the word is dismissed as innocent. “It’s a legitimate term,” we’ve heard some say. True. Flame retardant material is both common and acceptable, because there’s nothing dehumanizing about asbestos.
One reason the despicable word has been slow to die may be that it works so well as an insult. It’s not complicated. The ‘R’ word is associated with people who have been almost universally devalued, degraded and disrespected; and, nearly everyone in our culture knows that. So, when the word is used, everyone recognizes the insult. What people may not know is that it insults twice; once for the target of the slur, and once for the people to whom they are being compared. The ‘R’ word is an insult specifically because people with the disability are perceived as worthless.
Trivializing legitimate cultural shifts in our language gives those of us without disabilities the license to act as though these are not real issues with real outcomes that affect real people. Particularly as people of faith, it lets us off the hook for thinking and acting responsibly when it comes to proper stewardship of our intellect, our shared values, and our calling.
In 2010, Canadian advocate and writer, Dave Hingsburger, placed the discussion properly in context.
“The people who ‘ARE’ what the ‘R’ word refers to… have been torn from families and cast into institutions. They have been beaten, hosed down, over medicated, under nourished, sterilized, brutalized, victimized.
“They are most likely to be ignored when they speak of pain…
“They are educated only under protest… They are neighbors only because petitions failed to keep them out…
“They ask for respect and receive pity. They ask to silence words that brutalize them and their concerns are trivialized. They ask to walk safely through their communities and yet bullies go unpunished. They ask to participate fully and they are denied access and accommodation and acceptance…
“The ‘R’ word is an attack on a people who know discrimination.”
This issue has nothing to do with placing limits on free speech. People will always be free to speak in ignorant and hurtful ways. But when it comes to human rights, people of faith are called to speak as well. In a 2011 interview, Special Olympics Chairman and CEO Tim Shriver said, “I don’t want to be a cop, I want to be a teacher.”