Image by K. Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #4: “Retarded”

Welcome to the fourth segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that discusses harmful and discriminatory language embedded in our culture and provides ways to unlearn this language.

This week’s word is retarded.

The word “retard” is derived from the Latin word retardare, meaning “to make slow, delay, or hinder”. It was first used by psychiatrists in the early 20th century to refer to a person with an intellectual disability, and to replace older words like idiot, moron, and imbecile, as they had become derogatory terms. By the 1960s, however, the word “retarded” had turned into an ableist slur. Today it is used to describe something or someone that is out of control, foolish, inferior, ridiculous, or ignorant.

This word is deeply offensive to people with intellectual disabilities, as it belittles and shames them while simultaneously implying that their disability is something to be made fun of, much like the words “idiot” and “moron”. It is an exclusionist term that constructs persons with intellectual disabilities as ‘Other’. In turn, this can create a social barrier between these individuals and the rest of society.

In 2012, Ann Coulter referred to President Barack Obama as “retarded” on Twitter. American Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens responded with these statements in an open letter:

“After I saw your tweet, I realized you wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me [….] Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honour.”

In another article titled I Am the Person You Hurt When You Say the R-Word on the Huffington Post, Stephens goes on to explain that “[t]he R-Word hurts … it is aimed directly at me to label me as an outcast – a thing, not a person. I am not stupid. I am not a loser. I am not a thing. I am a person.”

By using the word retarded as an insult or descriptor, we are dehumanizing individuals with disabilities by defining them only through their disability, when in fact they are multi-dimensional human beings with accomplishments, personal interests, and goals.

Below are a few synonyms that you can use to replace this word in your vocabulary.

Use/context Alternatives
“That’s retarded.” “That’s ridiculous.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
“I disagree with that.”
“Last night’s party was retarded.” “Last night’s party was out of control.”
“Last night’s party was wild.”
“Last night’s party was weird.”
“My boss is being so retarded.” “My boss is being so frustrating.”
“My boss is behaving out of character.”
“I don’t understand my boss.”
“This situation is retarded.” “I don’t like what’s going on.”
“I wish things weren’t like this.”
“I’m not happy with this situation.”
“My friend’s brother is retarded.” “My friend’s brother has an intellectual disability.”
“My friend’s brother has (insert name of intellectual disability).”
  • LLV93

    “My friend’s brother is retarded.” –> “My friend’s brother has an intellectual disability.”

    It’s never acceptable to say “retarded”; in this case the alternative seems off though because most times when someone says “x person is retarded” they mean that person is just stupid and doesn’t actually have down syndrome or whatever.