Rethink Retarded

Atharva Talpade

I once called an ice cream flavor retarded. Green, rank, vomit-inducing, and weird, kimchi flavored ice cream was accurately described by the word retard. My date did not agree. In the middle of the ice cream shop, she questioned, “What did you say?”

“That ice cream over there, isn’t it retarded?” Due to my obliviousness, I did not notice her diminutive frame double take after the first use of the word, and I did not notice her ever present smile fade after the second use of the word. In the middle of the ice cream shop, she admonished me. “Retarded? Really, Henry? Out of all the words to choose in the English language to describe something out of the ordinary, you choose one that is derogatory to a whole swathe of people. Please don’t use that word, or at least don’t use that word when I am around.” I could not wrap my head around why her reaction was so vehement.  Everyone uses the word retarded in everyday life and the application of this word was apt; the ice cream was weird. My word had nothing to do with the people she claimed I offended.

After some googling, I discovered I was wrong. According to OED, retard comes from the latin word retardare which means to hinder or make slow. The word itself is meant to describe things slower than the norm. Disability advocates soon realized that the word, in its pre 21st century usage, was a great fit to describe people with mental handicaps. Dr. Reynolds from says the word ‘retard’ was needed because all of the previous words had become corrupted. Therefore retard quickly replaced all past words to refer to people with mental disabilities.

The word’s dictionary definition never strayed near weird. Yet, all I had ever used the word for was to describe weird or even stupid things. I felt incredibly guilty. My date was right, I had hurt a whole section of the population through using their label in an improper and negative way. Therefore, armed with my newfound knowledge, I was determined to combat the wrong usage of retard.

My first target was my father. He uses the word ‘retard’ often as an insult and views it as a term of endearment. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before he used the word again, I had planned to help him understand the true meaning of the word. My chance came when my dad observed my sister and I having ‘sock-skating’ races on the newly polished hardwood floor, “Stop being retards, one of you is gonna crack your head open.” I paused mid-skate to condemn my dad’s word choice. His reaction was less than ideal. “First off, don’t talk to me in that tone. Second, tons of words lose their meanings and gain new ones, retard seems to be one of those words.”

As much as I hated to admit it, in terms of words to refer to people with mental disabilities, he was correct. Words exclusively used for people with mental disabilities, such as moron, feeble minded, and idiot, were replaced with a new definition and a negative connotation. One of the starkest examples of this was imbecile. says imbecile originally meant “without a supporting staff,” or in plain english feeble. While not politically correct, imbecile had no previous negative connotation; it was only a way of describing a person with disabilities. But as time went on, imbecile became an insult used in everyday speech and applicable to every person, so 20th century do-gooders looked for a replacement.

A very similar path befell the word retarded. The word picked up steam throughout the 20th century to describe those with mental disabilities. By the 1950s, Robert Segal from The Arc says there was a National Association for Retarded Citizens.  The word was even enshrined into a few American laws.

But just as the other words were adulterated, so was retarded. It quickly became an insult, like imbecile, found in everyday speech and applicable to every person. Due to this, “forty-eight states had voted to remove the term “mental retardation” from government agencies, states codes, and legislations” reports the Washington Post. And in the same year Rosa’s law passed, officially changing the federal term from mental retardation to mental disability. Even the National Association for Retarded Citizens changed its name from that to The Arc, the organization I cited before.

But does it matter what word we choose? Does using the word mentally disabled change anything? A few months into my senior year of high school, I was in the locker room when I observed freshman using the phrase ‘you’re acting mentally disabled’ to describe a teammates struggle with ill-fitting shoes. I would imagine, this is how retard and imbecile and feeble minded and the countless other words for the mentally disabled began to change meaning.  

I only have one person close to me with severe mental disabilities. Her name is Evette. Whenever I go to her parent’s house, she takes me by her hand and pulls me to her basement. Just like most of kids her age, she is in love with dolls. While we both are playing ‘house’ with her barbies down in the basement, without fail she will quiz me, rapid fire, about my life. “What is your sister’s name, what is your mommy’s name, what is your daddy’s name, where do you live?’

“Isabel, Debra, and Ryan. I live in Madison, just like you. Remember, we played with my sister’s toys when you came to my house last week?”

“You’re Henry, right? My name is Evette.” She makes a point to introduce herself to everyone, regardless of how many times she has done it before, as Evette. Evette is not mentally disabled. Evette is not autistic. Evette is not retarded. Evette is Evette. She did not choose to have a label assigned to her that most certainly will be corrupted. Nor does she deserve to be assigned and identified by a label. No person with mental disabilities is their label. Labels do not create empathy. Labels are not specific enough. Labels act as if they are the defining characteristic of a large percentage of our populace. Labels should not be used. Instead, we have to implement a people first mentality. Instead of mentally disabled, people with mental disabilities. Instead of retarded, people with autism. Instead of labels, people. Because in the end that is what people with mental disabilities are, people.