Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
Over a year ago, I made this post about the word retarded and why I used it. In all but one way, I stand by everything I said in that post. I hate that “retarded” is used as an insult, and wish it could be used in a neutral (or even downright positive) way. I still think that if we get people to stop using the word “retarded,” if we cede it as an unacceptable insult, people will just move along to something even more offensive and unacceptable (“Downsy,” anyone?). The problem isn’t that people call other people retarded, the problem is that people think that retarded people are worthless.
I still think all that.
I’m going to stop using the word anyway.
I committed one fantastic, fatal, and essential error, and for that I apologize to everyone (neurotypical or not) who has ever been offended by anything I’ve written on the internet stemming from my use of the word (unfortunately, there’s no way for me to retrace my steps and delete all my offensiveness).
The error was that in this instance, it doesn’t matter how I feel about the word retarded. The fact that I have a sister with Down syndrome doesn’t make my feelings on this matter important or even material. I have been told–repeatedly, and by many people with cognitive disabilities (as well as by people who don’t have cognitive disabilities but have been labeled retarded anyway) that the word is offensive and they don’t like it. I might feel that the word is offensive not just because it’s offensive, but because people have decided it’s offensive (which I think are two different things), but it doesn’t matter. It’s not my right to offend legions people with disabilities in the name of educating people without them. People with disabilities have enough to worry about without me piling on. I can find other ways to educate. An essential part of advocacy, of allyship, is listening to what the group I’m allied with wants from me, and in this particular area, I failed spectacularly. I’m sorry. I will stop using the word.
Ironically (and in the interest of full disclosure), this whole revelation transpired from an internet discussion in which I unapologetically (and still unapologetically, at least so far) defended my use of the word “handicapped” when describing a restroom stall (maybe I would have been less impatient if I had used the word to characterize a person, and not a bathroom). In the course of the discussion, I mentioned I had a sister with special needs (not to justify myself, but just to clarify that I’m not a total newbie when it came to disability issues), and was subsequently called out for using the term special needs. I pointed out that the term (which I consider to be an entirely different term and with different connotation than “special,” which I agree is condescending and defensive) is widely used both in professional circles and by parent groups, and was told that just because a term is in wide use, that doesn’t make it not offensive to the people being described (point being that the group in question should be able to choose the words they want to be called).
My defense of myself (other than my repeated insistence that I do not speak of people in the same way that I speak of toilets) is that handicapped doesn’t have the same consensus of offense that retarded has. I know people (both on the internet and off) who don’t care about the word handicapped one way or the other, and some who use it positively. Similarly, I know of very few people–no, strike that, I know NO people–outside of this particular person that the term “special needs” is offensive. If the disabled community demonstrated the same cohesiveness about “handicapped” as about “retarded,” then I would be more inclined to stop using it. Same with “special needs.” I want to listen to people about how they want to be labeled, but I admit to having trouble being able to tell (and, honestly, I think sometimes the people themselves have trouble telling) when I am listening to one person speak for themselves, and when I’m hearing one person articulate a position that represents a fair majority of a population. So, this person called me out for using a handicapped stall, and ended up swearing me off the use of the word retarded, even though that word never came up in conversation. Funny, that.
I try to be flexible. My default adjectives for minorities tend to be queer, black, hispanic, etc. I have gay friends who describe themselves as fags or dykes. But if I’m with a gay person who doesn’t like the word fag? I don’t use it. All they have to do is tell me. If I’m with a person of color who identifies as African-American? I will say African-American around them, not black. If I’m with a person of color who identifies as black, I’ll call them black. It’s easy. It’s not hard. I should be able to do the same when describing non-neurotypical folk. It gets hairy on the internet, though, because I may be speaking about or to a person without having any idea what sort of adjectives they prefer. But still, I’ll try to improve in the future.
Also, I’m aware this post has a self-apologetic and defensive tone; I will simply admit I’m a self-apologetic and defensive person.