“Retard.” A rant for Blogging Against Disablism Day.

I am not a scholar. I am not an academic. I am a public school teacher who teaches middle school kids. If you're looking for an academic, scholarly, journal-quality piece of writing for Blogging Against Disablism Day, you have come to the wrong place. I am sure that others will be able to wax much more eloquently and informatively than I will. Me, I want to rant.

I'm here to talk about the word "retard."

If you've been here before, you know that I teach eighth graders. As many of you remember from your years in junior high or middle school, kids in this age group can be mercilessly cruel. Sometimes, their behavior crosses the line into downright evil. And one of the things they will do is call each other names. Horrible names. But only rarely do I hear my students using racial, ethnic, or bigoted slurs against each other. Mostly, the name calling is of a sexist / mysoginist bent ("bitch," etc.), or it's homophobic ("faggot," "that's so gay," etc.), or it's the Word You Never Want To Say In Mr. Austin's Class.

That is the word "retard." Or "retarded."

I am on a one-person crusade to stop kids in my school from using this word, and yet, for some reason, the use of it in the popular vernacular only seems to be getting worse. I hear it more and more often in movies and especially on television. And what's really distressing about its use in the media is that it's not just "young" characters who say it, as a way of somehow telling the dullards in the audience that the characters involved are "keeping it real" or whatever. It's the supposed grown-ups – the adults – who use it. The writers who make up this part of the supposedly liberal creative community throw it around like it's just another word. So more and more people hear it, and so figure that somehow it's acceptable.

I hate this word. I hate all that goes along with it, all that it implies. This is not just because I used to work with our county Special Olympics. It's not just because my niece is autistic. It's not just because my neighbor's son is autistic. It's not just because of the kids who have been through my classrooms at all grade levels for the past twenty-five years who have inspired me so much with the way they went about their day-to-day struggles, not just against their "disabilities," but against the stereotyping and indifference that they had to fight against as well. This is not just because many of the students who have to hear this word being thrown about by their peers as if it means nothing are either dealing with their own disability issues themselves, or have family members who are.

It's because it's hate speech. And because no one seems to care that it is.

The first time each school year when some unsuspecting chuckle-headed kid uses this word in my class, as in "You are so retarded," or "You ree-tard!," I usually make a really big deal out of it. I will stop the class cold and reel on the kid, if I can pick out the perp easily. If I don't know exactly who said it, I go off on the whole class. If it's handy, I whip out my niece's sweet-faced portrait. "You see this picture? This is my niece. She's autistic. She's what a stupid person would call 'retarded.' DON'T USE THAT WORD IN MY ROOM!" (Now, to be fair, realize that on the first day of every year, in every class, when I am going over my class ground rules, I give the kids fair warning: no one in my class is allowed to use hateful speech of any kind, and this word is specifically mentioned.) I ask the kids – all of them – would they use "the N word" on a Black classmate? Even as a "joke"? This is because so many of them respond to my ranting by saying, "It's just a joke" or "We're friends" or "I was just kidding!" So I respond: "Would you call a person a _____ as a joke?", filling in the blank with an offensive slur of some kind. The fact that some word that they will associate with hate is coming from my mouth in a classroom really shocks them.

At that point, after I have figuratively grabbed them by the throat, we will have a calm conversation about the meaning of words. And about how words hurt. And about how they should think about what words mean before they choose to use them. What ae we saying when we use that word that way, I ask them? That a person with disabilitites is somehow less than human? Less worthy of respect, of dignity? Less worthy of life? Who might you know, I ask, has to deal with some sort of physical or mental challenge every day? A family member? A friend or neighbor? How would you feel if that person was insulted by the use of that word?

After that, I usually don't hear that word again. really. One crazed, exaggerated hissy fit can make a big difference, especially since I very rarely raise my voice in class at all, let alone yell. Or, if I do hear it again later, I almost always hear the kids policing themselves, with other kids telling the guilty party not to "say that."

And I feel good about that. Like I actually have taught them something.

So today, I ask you to join me in my quest to rid the world of this particular form of hate speech. If you use it (and you young 'uns do, a lot. I hear it all the time on the college campus where I take night school classes), stop it. If you hear someone else use it, tell them it offends you, as you would (or should) when you hear people saying hateful things. If for no other reason, you'll be setting a good example for kids like my students.

They need more of those.


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