Most people have learned the “R” word is rude and is not an appropriate term to describe people with intellectual disabilities. But that word has a complicated history that corresponds inextricably with how our language reflects our biases.
The diagnosis of mental retardation was first coined in the late 19th century to replace earlier terms used to classify different levels of impairment. These terms, including moron, imbecile, idiot and cretin, have now entered our lexicon as insults. Originally, these were diagnostic terms that had no negative connotations. So, what happened?
According to Stephen Pinker, the euphemism treadmill happened. Pinker coined this phrase in 2003 to explain the process where a euphemism turns pejorative and begets another euphemism which then turns pejorative. The wheel goes round and round, but our underlying prejudice doesn’t move, so we don’t really get anywhere.
This is what happened when the once neutral medical term mental retardation became the playground insult, “retard.” Over the past few decades, the term intellectual disability has slowly replaced the older, now insulting term mental retardation in educational, legal and medical worlds. How long before intellectual disability falls prey to the euphemism treadmill?
A similar labeling problem has happened with person-first language. Person-first language emphasizes that a person is a person first, and happens to have a disability as well. This notion was created to combat dehumanizing labels like mongoloid, afflicted, wheelchair-bound, crippled or psycho. (Side note: Don’t use any of those words.) By turning it around to emphasize the person first (child with Down syndrome or person who uses a wheelchair), proponents of person-first language seek to change attitudes about disability through how we speak about it.
However, disability advocates today are reclaiming the word “disabled” to honor the fact that their disability is a major part of their identity. Just as I would likely call myself a woman rather than a “person with femaleness,” identify-first language recognizes that the disability is not only inseparable from the person, but is not shameful or stigmatizing or secondary. Many people who consider themselves disabled find their disability as natural and as much a part of them as their gender, race, religion, or right- or left-handedness.
Ironically, professionals and parents of people with disabilities are the ones clinging to person-first language, which is not inherently wrong. But often in promoting person-first language, we trample the desires of the very people we are trying to protect from the impacts of discrimination and bias. That is precisely the problem.
It was not someone we would currently call intellectually disabled who came up with the terms moron and idiot. In fact, it was Henry Goddard, an early 20th century eugenicist who created “moron.” That should make your skin crawl.
Our language shapes the way we think about things, and the way we think shapes our language. Should we not be asking people with disabilities to guide the way we think about disabilities?
Yes, end the R word. And end the prejudice that created it.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.