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“Retarded” is the new “Gay” – Rough Draft

March 27, 2013 by Sam Lebold   

When said in the context of everyday language, the word retarded goes seemingly unnoticed. But when said with respect to President Obama via twitter, suddenly the word and its usage are thrown into the spotlight. Last October, political commentator Ann Coulter, known for her extreme right wing views, posted a tweet saying “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard [Obama].” The tweet went viral and gained a fair amount of media attention, due to Coulter’s negative connotation on the word. However, Coulter was not the first or last to ever use the term in a derogatory sense; in fact, the term “retarded” is used quite often in the day-to-day vocabulary of many today. It is used as a synonym for “stupid”, “difficult”, “slow” and “different”, among many others. Coulter’s use of the word simply gained the attention of the media because of her very public standing– day after day, the word can be heard countless times on the lips of many. As a global society we’re no stranger to the word “retarded” (also known as the r-word). In the modern day, the r-word has gained negative connotations and has become an insulting stereotype, even when used to describe something other than a person with an intellectual disability. This becomes an issue when, as is the case with the r-word, a negatively-laced term becomes a part of our language and therefore defines the way we think about such a topic. The term has therefore become very hurtful to those with special needs, and therefore as a society we need to remove it from our vocabulary and decrease its usage in our language and speech in order not to convey such negative and harmful connotations on those with intellectual disabilities.

One of the fundamental issues with how pervasive the r-word is in today’s culture lies in the history of the word. Like many other words in the English language, the meaning of the term retarded has morphed quite a bit over time. The r-word falls into a category with other words such as imbecile and idiot– words at one point used to describe those with an intellectual disability. In the late 1960s through the 1980s, the term “mentally retarded” began to replace the then accepted term of  “mentally deficient”. From that point on, those with intellectual disabilities began to be categorized based on their degree of mental retardation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), 4th Edition, published in 1994, uses the clinical label “mental retardation” for those with intellectual disabilities, and categorizes them based on severity under the headings “mild”, “moderate”, “severe” and “profound”. The DSM is considered to be the most credible source for information all psychological, neurological, and psychiatric disorders, as well as some genetic disorders, and is widely accepted across a broad range of fields as a legitimate medical source. The DSM-IV is the most recent edition of the DSM, and thus the terminology presented in that edition became the accepted medical and psychological jargon of the next two decades, and continues to be the accepted medical and psychological jargon to the modern day.

Standing alone, the fact that the term “mentally retarded” used in a clinical setting carries no extraneous repercussions or negative implications. However, as the term “mentally retarded” became accepted to describe those with an intellectual disability in a clinical and medical setting, the term “retarded” was also introduced into the English language as a slang word and a morph of the medical term. The prefix of “mental” was dropped, and the r-word began to be used as a synonym for words such as “slow”, “moronic”, “idiotic”, “stupid”, “messed up” and “wrong”. As usage of the word grew in popularity among common language in America, the r-word evolved to hold seriously negative connotations. One does not simply use the r-word in a casual setting to describe something with a positive spin. Rather, the term has come to be an insult.


For the next two or so pages, I continue on to discuss how when we use the r-word with a negative undertone, it then pushes those negative implications on those with intellectual disabilities, creating a horrible stereotype. I also discuss how prevalent the word is in our everyday language, and how destructive that can be when it holds such negative connotations.

One thing that I feel like I’m really struggling with right now is one of the things on the checklist: progress. I feel like things might start to get repetitive in my essay, especially when it comes to discussing how hurtful and negative the r-word can be. I feel like it’s a tough essay to write because it’s a bit of a catch-22: the r-word has negative connotations because of how often and in what context it’s used, but the context and how often it is used is what gives it the negative connotations. So I’m struggling with that a bit right now as I try to formulate the rest of the essay.

I’m also struggling a little bit with strength and feeling like I’m not able to validate my argument very well. I have some other sources later in the paper, but there isn’t exactly a whole lot of useful literature that I’ve found that I could use in my essay.

1 Comment »

  1. Emily Prater says:

    Sam, I love your topic, and I think it’s a really important one to think (and in your case, write) about. As for your struggles, hang in there. I know you’ll figure it out. Keep working on it day by day, and it will fall into place in time for the due date. While sources are wonderful validation to any argument, some topics have to start somewhere in order for them to formulate research. I like what you have written so far, and with persuasive essays, it’s all about YOUR ideas. Stats and big name research aren’t always necessary to sway the mind of your reader. Keep looking, but don’t go crazy over it. Good luck.

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