East: Rejecting the R-word

BY KRISTEN EAST | MARCH 06, 2014 5:00 AM

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

I never quite understood that my brother had a learning disability until someone called him a retard within earshot.

I swiveled around on the heels of my feet that one day many years ago, wanting to clock this guy square in the jaw. No physical action was taken, because I was no older than 12 at the time, but I vividly remember the moment for its significance.

Up until that moment, I hardly noticed when the R-word was used recreationally among my friends and my peers. I hardly noticed when the word was used as a synonym for stupid, idiot, moron, loser, etc. It wasn’t until the very moment that the word was used to describe my brother, after he was unable to follow directions as clearly as the person before him, that I felt a pang of uncontrollable anger.

The person who uttered the word was someone I had gone to church with my whole life, someone who knew my family pretty well — someone I hadn’t expected to be so hurtful.

While I kept it together, my fists remained clenched, my jaw tight. The word wasn’t used with the intention of hurting me, and I don’t think my brother even acknowledged that the word was directed toward him. But that wasn’t the point. How could someone, anyone really, reduce my brother to being nothing more than his disability? And, reduced to nothing more than his disability by way of an archaic, misused, and derogatory word.

My brother isn’t defined by his disability, and he certainly isn’t a “retard.”

Neither are the more than 1 million other Americans who also have intellectual disabilities.

Thankfully, there are campaigns to end the hurtful and derogatory use of the word “retard.” The national Spread the Word to End the Word campaign — an effort spearheaded by Special Olympics and Best Buddies, among other supporters — observed its annual day of awareness on Wednesday. The campaign, started in 2009, seeks to inform others about people who have intellectual disabilities and pledge to have people stop using it.

In recent years, state and national leaders have enacted legislation to support this same idea.

Both state and national campaigns have made strides in recent years to change the terminology for Americans with disabilities. President Obama signed Rosa’s Law in 2010. The law replaces several instances of “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.”

Iowa Assistant Senate Majority Leader Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City, introduced a very similar law in Iowa in 2012. The law also called for the replacement of “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” on most references. State officials at the time said the change was about modernizing language. The bill passed unanimously in the Iowa Senate and House, and Gov. Terry Branstad signed the law almost two years ago, in March 2012.

While government officials recognize the need for change, there’s still more that must be done in order to persuade those who don’t yet see the harm behind using the word “retard.”

Legislation only goes so far if we as a society are unwilling to change our everyday language.

In today's issue:

Privacy Policy (8/15/07) | Terms of Use (4/28/08) | Content Submission Agreement (8/23/07) | Copyright Compliance Policy (8/25/07) | RSS Terms of Use

Copyright © The Daily Iowan, All Rights Reserved.