On top of all the discussion (and it has been such good discussion) about disability and cures, what it means to be human, the value of a life lived with Down Syndrome, the human need for "perfection", the past week has also opened up an exchange about the use of the word "retarded". Let me come out strongly and vigourously against that word, right off the bat.
What arose this past week revolved around the use of the word "retarded" in a CBC radio comedy sketch. Someone (thank goodness!) wrote in to express their disappointment that the CBC would allow the use of such a hurtful and discriminatory term. In response, a couple of listeners wrote in to oppose that individual's opposition. They suggested that "the problem is not with the word, but with people's attitudes". One of them argued that "politically correct language doesn't change the seriousness of conditions like Down's [sic] Syndrome. I would hope that CBC would strive to use language that accurately describes reality rather than language that obscures difficult facts in euphemisms."
The phrase "person with an intellectual disability" is not a euphemism that obscures a difficult truth. People with disabilities suffer such discrimination and marginalization in our society that we don't need to worry about disguising any harsh realities - they know the cruelties of life first hand, and face those harsh realities from the day they are born. Of course, neither is "person with an intellectual disability" a perfect term. For example, it still contains the term "disability", a label with an inherently negative connotation. Who else among us is defined by what we cannot do?
But like all knowledge, language is always evolving. As Silas wrote, "Try reading almost any book written more than 30 years ago without noticing the glaring use of only masculine pronouns, where today we would write "he or she". This change in language both reflected and extended a change in attitudes that took place as our society began to recognize the equality of the sexes. Language changes all the time. Sometimes we have to do it consciously and explicitly, so our language can catch up with our politics." Hopefully someday we will find a way to talk about people with Down Syndrome or people with autism that won't immediately conjure an image of a damaged, limited, less-than-whole individual. Hopefully we will find a way to talk about our people as, well, people. Of course, that will only happen as our attitudes toward these devalued groups of people change, and that change won't happen unless we speak out.
In the meantime, let's follow the example of People First, one of the only advocacy networks for people with intellectual disabilities which is totally run by the people for whom they advocate. For them, people first language is so critical that they chose it for their name. We need to listen to this too-often unheard voice of people with intellectual disabilities, who always have people speak for them and about them, but so rarely have the opportunity or the ability to speak for themselves and actually be heard. (You have to look hard to find folks with intellectual disabilities weighing in on this particular issue. But this five-minute video is a wonderful example of self-advocacy.)
Again, I quote Silas: "The deletion of the words "retard" and "retarded" from the English language is long overdue. These words belong to a bygone era, a time when the medical community, and society, regarded people with disabilities as diseased errors, subhuman. Today they are nothing but schoolyard insults, dripping with hatred and oppression. Sure, some people who use them don't mean it that way, but most do. We should respect the right of people to choose the term that will apply to them. If you wouldn't call someone a "cretin", an "imbecile", or an "idiot" (terms with a similar history as "retarded"), if you wouldn't say "negro" or "Jap", then don't call someone "retarded"."