There's nothing wrong with the actual word, all by itself. "Retard" means to cause to move more slowly or operate at a slower rate. It's very descriptive. But it definitely has become a pejorative term in our society.
If not addressed, underlying prejudices will color any subsequent descriptive terms of choice with an unpleasant, negative association as they too begin to be used as insults. (In much the same way that in my lifetime I've seen a progression of words used to describe groups of people from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.) But that doesn't mean that it's OK to keep using outdated terms once they've become passé.
And the word "retarded" has clearly passed that point. The Association for Retarded Citizens has renamed itself The Arc, formally removing the word "retarded" from its description and acknowledging overwhelmingly negative connotations with the word. The American Association on Mental Retardation changed its name a couple of years ago to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. And as for the clinically diagnostic use of the term "mentally retarded," well, that does still exist in the DSM-IV, though that document itself is significantly outdated, and many practitioners, evaluators, educators, and others who deal with people with developmental disabilities are very careful about using the loaded term.
Recently, I was involved in an discussion board thread about "the r word." The problem was that the thread wasn't supposed to be about the term, but the mom writing about her son used it several times.
A shorter copy of the original story was also posted on a blog I read, here. In short, a woman is going through an incredibly frustrating time trying to get her (undiagnosed) son the help he needs. Of a conversation with an evaluator, who has commented that the boy will have a hard time qualifying for a particular service because his cognitive score is normal, the mom writes, I, being pissed off and disinclined to be PC about the whole thing, said “Truly? You only serve r****d children?” To which she replied, “No, no, most of the children we serve are not r*****d at all! It’s just that by the time we get to them, they’ve been so neglected that they’re TESTING as r*****.”
The original post on the discussion board was uncensored, and in response I brought up my discomfort with use of the term in this way. A very interesting discussion ensued. I don't want to keep bumping a thread about a difficult situation for this woman and her family, but I do want to respond to a couple of issues the conversation raises, so I will do so here.
First, I think that calling hurtful language merely "not PC" belittles the complaint.
Second, I don't think that being angry justifies using hurtful language. Most of us slip up and say unpleasant things sometimes, but that doesn't mean that we should get a free pass.
Third, I think an apology that includes a "but" isn't much of an apology. Similarly, saying "I'm sorry for offending you" or even, "I'm sorry that you were hurt by what I said," is different from saying "I'm sorry that I said something hurtful and offensive." Because, in a situation like this, I am not personally hurt. I am not looking for a personal apology. I'm just raising awareness that this sort of language is hurtful and offensive to many in the community of people it describes. And, as such, it is unacceptable.
Fourth is the idea that intent matters, that if the speaker doesn't see a word as negative, then it's not. There's something to that, in that it's possible to be ignorant of changing standards. That's why people who know better should speak up and explain. Once we know better, we can and should be more thoughtful. In this case, however, the "intent" excuse doesn't really fly, if the anecdote is shared to demonstrate the evaluator's inappropriate usage of the term. The mom either knows that it's an inappropriate thing to say, in which case she shouldn't have said it, or she doesn't know, in which case the evaluator's parroting back of the term doesn't raise any red flags.
In this discussion, I was accused of wanting to "ride [my] "r"-word hobbyhorse," and just showing up to "give [the mom] a spanking."
I hope (clear and insightful writer) Kay Olson doesn't mind if I quote her, because I loved her response so much:
Language usage issues always look like they have popped up out of nowhere, but they never really do pop up out of nowhere -- they are there in every conversation until someone does exactly what Sarahlynn did here and make them part of the discussion. Then, predictably, as here, the person gets blasted for going off-topic or missing the point or tone of the conversation. The invisibleness of problematic language until someone has to make a stink to bring awareness to the use of that language is the whole problem.
Language usage issues like this are not a simple matter of "etiquette" and "courtesy," unless, of course, you are completely tuned out to the historical and ongoing oppression and prejudice they contribute to. It's not just "rude" to use the N-word or the C-word, and it would be dismissive to excuse that language as just rudeness and use of something that has "fallen out of fashion."
All that said, I appreciate your apology, [J's Mom], and apologize in return for seeming insensitive to your family's struggles. I hope this clarifies where I am coming from.