Everyone’s supposed to feel welcome at Harvard. Liberalism carries its own prejudices, of course, and conservatives, Southerners, and religious students can encounter snap judgments. But overall, society’s most marginalized groups find an atmosphere of respect here. I have always been impressed that Harvard students, unlike most young people, generally refrain from and frown upon offensive phrases like “That’s gay,” presumably out of consideration for their gay classmates.
Unfortunately, there is one hurtful minority slur that Harvard students tolerate and embrace: “retard.” “Mentally retarded” was originally an appropriate clinical term for people with intellectual disabilities, but over time has evolved into slang, common at Harvard and elsewhere, for “stupid” or “dumb.”
This word hurts. When a word that is directly associated with people with intellectual disabilities becomes society’s label for things that are undesirable, it sends the signal that they too are undesirable. It stigmatizes them in the minds of others, regardless of whether those using the word are intentionally making fun of people with intellectual disabilities or not.
I know this because my sister, Natalie, was born with severe intellectual disabilities. She only knows a few words, and mentally functions at the level of a toddler despite being in her 20s. She is also the happiest person I know. She brings joy into every life she touches. I think of her every time I hear another student casually use the r-word. It doesn’t matter if the student uses the word without malicious intent. My sister and the r-word are too inextricably linked for me not to feel like she has just been laughed at.
If you are skeptical, ask yourself how a member of any other group would feel if we used a term referring to them the way we currently use “retarded.”
Imagine how hurtful it is for a child with intellectual disabilities who understands the meaning of the r-word to hear his or her classmates use it to describe everything they don’t like.
When will we start affording the roughly five million Americans with intellectual disabilities the respect enjoyed by nearly every other minority? It goes without saying that their intellectual difficulties are no fault of their own. Any one of us could have been born in their place. They are all individuals with unique personalities and senses of humor. They are students, athletes, musicians, and employees. They have millions of friends and family who love them. They’re human and deserve to be treated as such.
Some have argued that fighting labels is pointless because new disparaging terms will arise until the underlying prejudice disappears. That’s possible, but making clear that it is unacceptable to disrespect a minority can help change people’s attitudes toward that minority. The taboo on using the n-word, for example, reminds people that it is wrong to be prejudiced against African-Americans, and a taboo on using the r-word would do the same for people with intellectual disabilities.
For a community facing such high obstacles to respect already, the last thing it needs is an enemy in our language. A society’s vocabulary has an early and powerful influence on children. It’s time to stop using slang that reinforces prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities.
Language, however, is but one component of the change America needs to make with regard to those with intellectual disabilities. True respect permeates all aspects of life. State and federal governments must promote access to healthcare, education, and employment for people with intellectual disabilities. This imperative is more pressing than ever after the bone-deep cuts in intellectual disability spending since the Great Recession.
To promote awareness of the hurtful effects of the r-word, and to encourage people to stop using it, today the Special Olympics is sponsoring “Spread the Word to End the R-Word Day.” Please consider signing the online pledge.
This is not a call for censorship. We want people to realize the pain this word causes and decide for themselves to stop using it out of respect for others’ feelings. Nor is this a plea for political correctness, but rather for consideration. Nobody is denying the existence of intellectual disabilities. A community of people and those who love them are asking that a word that deeply hurts them no longer be used. It’s long overdue that society does for those with intellectual disabilities what it did long ago for Americans of Chinese, African, Italian, Jewish, and Mexican descent.
You’re not a bad person if you’ve used the r-word, but now you know it hurts. Resolve today to stop and urge others to do the same. Let’s promote respect for those with intellectual disabilities and begin treating the r-word like any other minority slur in everyday conversation and in music, television, and movies. As for Harvard, let’s finally make all offensive and hurtful minority slurs on campus a thing of the past.
Wyatt N. Troia ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.