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Why Changing the R-Word Only Matters So Much

Essay Quick Link: New Proposal In Congress Would Remove ‘Mentally Retarded’ From Federal Law

I grew up hearing the R-word from other people. “I’m so ___” or “You’re such a ___” or “What are you, ____?

Those types of statements went from uncomfortable to distressing when our daughter Penny was born and was diagnosed with Down syndrome. People with Down syndrome have intellectual disabilities, formerly known as mental retardation. So whenever someone used the R-word as a put-down, it wasn’t generally offensive. It was personal. 

I learned later that mental retardation was a label that replaced idiot and imbecile. Doctors wanted a more clinical way to describe the mental state of children and adults who processed the world at a different pace and often learned slowly. It was a neutral, if not positive, term when it was introduced. 

Last week, a bill was introduced to Congress to replace the words “mental retardation” in our US law code. I’m in favor of this measure. The language we use should reflect respect for the people it represents, and the words mental retardation no longer reflect respect.  

And yet linguistic changes do not automatically bring respect, and they do not automatically signal cultural changes. The language around intellectual disability has changed over the years because with each new term, disrespect and mockery have followed. Just last week I was sitting at a red light behind a car with a bumper sticker mocking kids on “the short bus.”

Idiot became imbecile became mental retardation became intellectual disability. That’s a good thing. But we also need to change the deeper narrative—from exclusion to belonging, from rejected to valued, from belittled to beloved. 

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