Words That Hurt: Don’t Say The R-Word

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UPDATED 08.23.21- Speaking of unacceptable words, check out the reaction one professional organization had to something an attorney for a January 6 defendant said. IDD reacts to comments of attorney Albert Watkins.   

I think everyone reading this blog knows using the R-word is offensive. Over 100 organizations have made a coordinated effort to equate the R-word and its variants with the N-word. Calling someone a retard, or something retarded, has led to the shaming of celebrities who slip up and use either word. Congress passed a bill in 2009 called Rosa’s law, requiring the replacement of all R-words with the term “Intellectual Disability” in all federal statutes. Still, R-words remain buried somewhere deep in our collective arsenal of derogatory names.

     But the R-word isn’t the only derogatory word that I think should be avoided. There are three older words that also deserve to be banned. They are moron, idiot, and imbecile. It’s probably true to say that most people today don’t know that at one time, these three words were just as sensitive as the word retarded. They were hurtful labels with serious connotations.

     When I began working with intellectually and physically impaired people in 1974, we used several variations of the word retarded to categorize those on the lower end of an intelligence scale. If we step back to the year 1920, before the word retarded appeared, moron, idiot, and imbecile described the same degrees of intellectual impairment as the R-words. We can still find these three words used every day. Here is a chart comparing the 1974 words with those used in 1920:

In 1974* You Were CalledIf You Scored This On An IQ TestIn 1920 ** You Were Called
Mildly Retarded51-70Moron
Moderately Retarded35-50Idiot
Severely Retarded25-34Idiot***
Profoundly Retarded0-24Imbecile

*One can still find these words in medical diagnostic classification systems.[i] [ii]

** The word Feebleminded was widely used in this same era, although it is missing from this list. This diagnosis was not tied to an IQ score but rather referred generally to people who were considered incapable of making good decisions. Those who were mentally ill, alcoholic, or poor were often called feebleminded.

*** The term idiot described people whose IQ was between 25-50.  

     In 2021, I regularly hear people call others a moron, an idiot, or an imbecile with absolutely no embarrassment or hint of inappropriateness. Most don’t realize what these three words even mean. I recently found Gary Larson’s 1985 book Valley Of The Far Side on my bookshelf. If you’re not familiar with his work, he specialized in finding humor by twisting sayings and situations into weird cartoon scenarios. In the small, one hundred- and four-page book, one character describes another using the word idiot in three cartoons, imbecile in two. If we are honest, we all use one of the three older words now and then. They, too, are buried in our collective arsenal of hurtful words.

     All the words I describe are derogatory. And by no means are they the only ones; cretin and mongoloid are two more. I’m not saying we need to shun people or ban books that use these words. I am suggesting that if people understood what they were saying, maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to label others.

[i] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition published by the American Psychiatric Association

[ii] Also see the Handbook of Genetic Counseling/Developmental Delay and Mental Retardation

The Author

My goal is to write excellent novels about impaired people who suffer from unjust treatment. I hope is that my work will inspire the disability community to move forward. Any status quo would make it easier to go back to the dark days of institutionalization and isolation.

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