Tag Archives: developmental disabilities

Resurgences: Not Necessarily a Good Thing

I have been noticing this, unfortunately, in some of the current young adult literature that I’ve been reading, thankfully not too many of them, and in more conversations around the elementary school I work in. I’ve tried to catch the kids who use it, but they inevitably disappear into the crowd, and as I’m working with a kiddo in a wheelchair, I can’t very well just leave him there without anyone watching him. But then my SO mentioned that he’s been hearing it more lately as well, in conversations, probably mostly on the bus, since he works with older students with disabilities (18-21) and rides public transportation a lot. Not that I mean to insinuate anything about people riding buses, because there are students (although they use it fairly freely as well, from what I’ve heard), people who don’t use cars, etc. riding.

After a long time of people trying to stamp the word out, not just in the name of political correctness, it’s come back, and I’m worried it’s going to start to come up more and more unless people do something about it. I’ve been upset to see it in the young adult novels, especially. It’s a word that carries a lot more connotation than the people and kids using it so cavalierly realize.


Language changes over time. Sometimes terms are dropped because their meaning is no longer useful in its original context, as it’s become so mixed into everyday language it’s now useless in medical terms, which is what mental retardation used to be–a medical term. In some places, that’s still what having a developmental disability is called. In the medical sense, it means simply that the growth of the brain and other related functions have been retarded, slowed, and aren’t where they are supposed to be. The “mental” was gradually dropped in the field, and simply “Retardation” was used. The public in general started to use it, not in the medical sense completely, but simply as a word, an insult–that’s the important thing here–to use on someone they thought had done something stupid, or, in many cases, threw the word back at someone who was developmentally disabled in this context. It had nothing to do with a medical term and everything to do with being cruel, misinformed, and uncaring.

People don’t even think about it. It’s just an everyday word they use, similar to “lame,” which also originally had a medical use. People who use it do so without realizing that they have no right to do so. I would hesitate to say that, in a way, that word belongs solely to people with developmental disabilities, if they deigned to use it as such, much the way the N word belongs to the people who use it among themselves, but it doesn’t belong to anyone but them. I don’t know if that’s a similar case or not. I don’t think I’m really qualified to say.

Mental Retardation has mostly been dropped in the medical field except maybe in some cases of diagnosis, but usually the term that’s used is Developmentally Disabled. Who knows how long it will take before the general public find some way to make that an insulting term and the people working in the field have to come up with something else.

The fact that the term “retard” is making a return in the 21st century is depressing. It makes me wonder if it will ever find its way out of the vernacular. It’s a hateful word, whether joking around with your friends, or when using it against someone with a developmental disability. People who are developmentally disabled can no more change the way they are any more than the people bandying the term around so carelessly can change the fact they have green eyes or brown hair. It’s just a fact.

It’s also a fact that just because someone has a developmental disability doesn’t make them any less loving, caring, or sensitive than the person using the word. Think about that for a minute. What if you, careless word-slinger, were sitting in a wheelchair, relied on others to care for you, and you couldn’t talk, but you understood every single thing that people around you said, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it? How would that make you feel? Sure, people with developmental disabilities do things that look strange sometimes. They may shout, wave their arms around, make strange noises. You may see the people working with them making gestures with their hands at them. That’s American Sign Language, the only way some people can communicate, and the way many of us hope and pray that we’ll be understood by the person to try to figure out what they want or need, because, you know what? We have a hard time figuring it out sometimes as well. The inability to communicate is probably the main reason you see so many people with disabilities behaving in a way that you would call them a “retard” for. If there was one superhero power in the world that I could have, it would be to communicate with everyone, even you, to try to make you understand why what you’re doing when you call people “retard” is so hateful. Try not talking for a day and see how you feel. Try to get help from someone without talking and see how you’re treated. Some of the kids we work with can talk, but they’re hard to understand. Sometimes I think they get made the most fun of, because they want to play with you on the playground just like any other kid. And if I hear you call any of my kids in my classroom “retard,” I _will_ stop you if I am able and ask you why. You’ll probably just make fun of me and think I’m just some crazy (another medical term that’s escaped it’s medical background–it’s funny how many of those there are) lady working with “retards.”

I know I switched this to elementary level. That’s what I know best. And I know that if it isn’t stopped here, along with all the other bullying that takes place, chances become slimmer and slimmer that things will change as they progress through school and end up becoming uncaring, unthinking, unkind adults. Unless they happen to end up in an accident, say, a traumatic brain injury, which puts them exactly in the situation as the kids they taunted and the word they threw around so carelessly years before.

I am not saying this to sound overly dramatic, but sometimes it nearly brings me to tears of frustration that I can’t figure out what someone means when they are obviously upset to the point that they are biting their own hand or hitting their head against the table. Part of it could be their diagnosis, but if we could just understand… I just wish I could help people understand that yes, what they say or write is important, especially when the audience is an impressionable one, such as a young adult one.

I write–not for young adults but for adults, in a fantasy setting. Even then I think about what sort of moral position am I taking here. Why can’t I just write whatever I want and throw out that mental censor altogether? Many things get by the mental censor, and are pulled out later. But some stay in. I would hope that writing for adults, they would be responsible enough to know, OK, book does not equal reality. I think many young adults are completely competent to do that as well, but they’re still formulating who they are (not that that ever really stops, I just think it settles some and then gradually morphs as we age). I’ve read many of the articles from critics saying young adult books are garbage and shouldn’t even be read. I think that’s piffle. If I were a teenager now, I’d sure want to read something to escape the world we live in. I do as an adult–read to escape, that is, or write to try to create a world that I like better.

I do read YA novels, but I am pickier now. There are the formulas that some books fall into: YA goes to school for misfits who have strange unexplained powers, meets and falls in love with opposite gendered person (are there any YA books out there where there are same gendered relationships? I’m sure I could find some if I looked). Forces of evil need to be destroyed by them, will it destroy their relationship… Mistreated YA ends up with magical powers and a guide comes to help them that they inevitably fall in love with, lots of YAs falling in love with vampires, fallen angels, lycanthropes, etc., that they shouldn’t be, etc. Some of them are so similar I read some of it and don’t read it unless the writing as I’ve looked through it seems better than the rest–but there are so many cookie cutter YA books out there. Not that there aren’t some exceptional ones as well. I wish there had been such a selection when I was a YA. Not that the same cookie cutter phenomenon doesn’t happen in adult fiction as well–take what you know sells and beat it to death.

I diverged from my topic some. I meant to say that I do think YA authors do have a little more responsibility than adult authors, and that may sound a little unfair. I don’t know that I’d even say that except I have a much younger sister, 23 years younger than I am, and she and I have discussions (ah-hem, sometimes verging into somewhat heated discussions) about YA books. She’ll be 21 next month. She’s been home-schooled and not exposed to a lot of the pettiness that occurs in our public education system. But man, she is tenacious. She will grab an idea and hold on to it like a terrier. I guess what I’ve been trying to do is get her to be a little more open minded and not dismiss a book because of ONE description she thought was stupid. She writes fanfic, which I never did, so it’s a world I don’t really understand. She bears grudges toward certain authors I won’t name that now she won’t read at all because of things they did when writing fanfic before they became published authors (that may give it away there, I don’t know). But it seems like she’s still coalescing, thinking about things, and it’s hard sometimes to tell what are ideas she’s come up with on her own or whether they’re one’s she’s just read somewhere else. That’s what I mean by responsibility. Our dad taught Special Education, and now I work in the field. If she didn’t have that exposure, I’m not sure what she’d do re: the word “retard.” She’s a pretty kind person–I don’t think she’d use it. But there are a lot of YA in her place, still forming, and who knows what they would do.

Something would have to be earth-shattering to change an adult’s mind, I think. More than just a book. I have read blurbs on books that say “It changed my life,” and maybe it did. I have had books effect me profoundly, but they mostly emphasized things I already believed. I think I would have to visually see something, in person, for it to change my life.

But I don’t know what to do about this resurgence of the word “retard.” Try to stop anyone you hear and explain why they shouldn’t? I don’t know. It’s used out of ignorance, and the only way to fight ignorance is education. I think that should come from everywhere. Who knows, their parents might use it as well.

Incidentally, and completely off this particular abandoned medical term, since I use it so often in my posts, there’s another one that I think is a mix of a medical and a law enforcement, that was used, I think, in the early to mid 1900’s (I could be completely off with the dates). Significant other. This one sort of cracks me up, because it’s taken the complete opposite meaning as it’s original intention. Before it was abandoned as a medical/law enforcement term, in the case of a suicide, the person considered the most likely as the one who triggered the suicide was called the significant other.

That raises some interesting questions. Does this mean now, when we refer to our significant others, that we are really with the person most likely to drive us to kill ourselves? Possibly a question I shouldn’t ask. Maybe I should come up with a new title to call my SO. I don’t think he’s going to drive me to suicide, though. Nor will he ever, in any case or situation, lead me to calling him a “retard.” We are in complete agreement on the subject.