In Her Shell
Saturday, January 09, 2010
  Why I Should Be Allowed To Call Myself 'Retarded'
I'm a teacher, so I know all about the scarring effects of name-calling. I also know that words have a lot of power and can contain violence.

This week I think I may have said "I feel retarded" to a Special Ed teacher.

I was driving home when I realized this and felt horrified. But then I thought, 'retarded' really just means 'slow,' like a retard in music. I was feeling retarded when I asked the question of my colleague. Not fundamentally different in intellectual capacity than an average woman of my age. Just slow.

It wasn't until the mid-seventies that children with disabilities were declared legally deserving of a free and appropriate public education. Before that, if you had braces on your legs and couldn't handle the stairs up to Biology, they could shut the doors on you and say, "Sorry, no thanks." If you had a learning disability you'd probably just be tracked into a vocational course at school, and if you had Down Syndrome, nobody would even think of sending you.

Before that, the preferred term was "Feeble Minded," an umbrella which could include everyone from the insane to the developmentally disabled to the promiscuous or just plain rebellious, especially if you were a woman. These people, so labeled, often ended up on "farms," sprawling campuses with dormitories and manual labor and often some form of abuse, including forced sterilization.

So it hasn't been very long that civil rights and liberties have been guaranteed to people with disabilities in this country, and things like IDEA and the ADA were huge steps up. Of course, prejudice persists. Once mainstreamed into the general population, at least at school, all the childhood stories with disfigured, limping 'monsters' predisposed lots of kids to fear. It's getting better, but still isn't a great situation, as with most prejudices.

But these kids, in classes, were called "retarded," because they were slower than the average kid. Then the average kids started calling each other 'retarded' when they said something stupid, and the whole thing went downhill. It's not the most flattering name in the best of circumstances, I admit. But it is a fun word to say aloud.

Being aware of how far we've come in being sensitive to differing abilities, and how far we still have to go, when I recognize slowness in myself, shouldn't I be able to identify it with a cool-sounding word like 'retarded'? If I don't apply it to anyone else? I didn't feel stupid when I had a question for the Special Ed teacher. I just felt, well, sort of slow.

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