Offensive terms: Retarded

March 11, 2010: Issue 331

Last week’s discussion of diseases and disorders prompted questions about how we refer to people with intellectual disabilities.
This issue has been in the news lately because Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, called some fellow Democrats “retarded.” (He called them “f***ing retarded,” but the r-word has stirred more outrage than the f-word in this case.)
Many of us grew up calling people with intellectual disabilities “retarded.” But that word, like many words that were acceptable a few decades ago to describe race, has evolved and taken on a negative connotation. Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary says the word is “sometimes offensive,” so we won’t use it.
Borrowing the language that Special Olympics uses, we’ll refer to “intellectual disabilities” and “people with intellectual disabilities” (never “intellectually disabled people” or “the intellectually disabled”).

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