by Eric Pudalov, Community Events Coordinator
On Long Island, NY, from where I hail, my parents subscribe to the local newspaper, called Newsday. Several months ago, they featured a brief article about people with disabilities; I believe it was entitled “Call to End Use of R-Word.” I think you know the word to which I’m referring: “retarded.”
This word, like other outdated terms (e.g. idiot savant), has many connotations which are hurtful to the people to whom they refer. Unfortunately, though we may not often use the word “retarded” in journalistic and educational settings, it still comes up in common parlance.
Often, it seems that the people who use such words are unaware that their use is hurtful to someone else, and may use them so casually that they barely give it any thought. For example, someone may say to his friend, “Dude, you’re being retarded.”
On the Black Eyed Peas’ 2003 album Elephunk, there was even a popular song entitled “Let’s Get Retarded.” Though the group didn’t seem to mean the word in a derogatory way (referring to getting loose and dancing), it still had negative connotations. The edited version, created soon after its release, was entitled “Let’s Get It Started.”
Another WordPress blog, rock the dub, also addressed this word on March 20 of this year. The author compared its use to that of the “n-word,” which has become popular as a term of endearment and is frequently heard in hip-hop and R&B music (mostly in a positive light). Like the “r-word,” it may not always be meant in a derogatory way, but because of its history, simply using it can still have negative effects.
So what is a more proper term to use? Some prefer terms like “special needs,” or “developmentally disabled.” While those terms seem preferable to the “R-word,” they too can present problems at times. Euphemisms, while well-intended, can often become too vague, to the point of losing their meaning.
Having been part of programs for people with disabilities for the past few years, I can fully understand why someone with these struggles would be hurt by such labels. At the same time, I can also understand the need to designate the people served by the programs, using such terms as “clients” or “individuals.”
As a result of my experience living with others who have had autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and other kinds of disabilities, I have become more sensitive about the language I use in reference to myself and my roommates, as well as people with disabilities in general. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the term “disability”; although it implies a limitation, I’ve realized that so many of the adults in these programs have a number of great talents that may require extra time and effort to recognize.
Not long ago, I also spent a short time at the Frazer Center, a nonprofit organization that provides excellent services to infants, young children, and adults with developmental disabilities. My purpose in being there was to receive job training before going back into the workforce, as I had been unemployed for a long period of time.
Though I initially found it difficult, as I had trouble figuring out the most productive learning activities for myself there, I eventually took great pride in befriending and helping the other adults with disabilities there, as well as adjusting to a simulated work environment (I mainly participated in computer-related activities and small group meetings of 3-5 people).
One person in particular stood out to me, as he displayed an extraordinary talent. This man was a very prolific artist; and these were no mere child’s scribbles. I even compared his drawings and paintings to those of Picasso and Georges Braque at one point…and was very thankful to have met him. Before leaving the program, I purchased one of his drawings, which was an abstract picture of a saxophone; being a sax player, I found this one especially endearing. I hope one day to see this artist again, as I think he would be a wonderful subject for some of GCSS’ future newsletters or blogs.
So, to sum up, I choose not to use the “R-word” in my daily speech, and I encourage others to do the same. If you have never had the opportunity to know someone with a disability personally, my best advice is “don’t be afraid.” You never know what positive experiences you may gain from the friendship.
And while I realize that change such as discouraging the use of a word, for society overall, takes time, each of us can do our part to help that happen.