boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe
BEVERLY BECKHAM

Let's not use words that have power to wound

I like to believe that it's a lack of thought and not meanness that makes people use words that hurt. That they're going with the flow, following the crowd, saying what everyone else is saying with no intent to wound.

But words do wound.

My granddaughter Lucy is 3 years old. She has dark blonde hair, green eyes, and Down syndrome.

Even before she was born, I bristled at the use of the word: "That outfit looks retarded." "He's a retard." "I'm not driving all the way over there. That's retarded." It was mostly teenagers who said it then, and twenty somethings.

Now the word has gone mainstream. It's on TV. In movies. On the radio. In books. In music. It was the title of a Black Eyed Peas hit song, "Let's Get Retarded," which was changed (because the ARC of the United States, formerly known as the Association for Retarded Citizens, wrote and objected?) to "Let's Get It Started."

But it played to sell-out crowds as "Let's Get Retarded" because retarded is a popular West Coast term that, according to Songfacts.com, is "chanted at clubs and dances and used in everyday slang" and means "to go crazy on the dance floor" (synonyms are "Go Dumb" and "Get/Go Stupid").

The word is also all over the Internet.

Retarded has even spawned new words: celebutard, a famous stupid person; debutard, a rich stupid person; e-tard, a stupid Internet user -- stupid being the common denominator, and "tard" a suffix and a word in itself. ("Tard: Adjective used to describe one so retarded, they do not deserve the 're' " -- Urban Dictionary.)

Which is why the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation must change its name. And soon.

Originally known as the Division of Mental Retardation under the Department of Mental Health, it kept "mental retardation" in its title when it changed its name 20 years ago.

Even then, retarded was a word with too much baggage. But now it's worse, bringing back movie images of wards full of dull-eyed people with mismatched clothes, bad teeth, and shuffling gaits. The village idiot, mocked and scorned.

Hollywood gave us these pictures of the mentally challenged. Maybe they were accurate at the time; maybe they weren't. What is unarguable is that they are not a picture of the cognitively disabled now.

Now is different. Now is a better world for all people with any kind of disability. Now there's inclusion and handicap access and Braille and aides and closed caption TV and community support and group homes and amazing amounts of empathy and understanding.

Which makes the use of the word retard by people who should and do know better, curious. Why the surge in use of this word now?

Lindsay Lohan has used it. Paris Hilton. Britney Spears. Courtney Love. Bill Maher. It's out there being said by the rich and famous.

Two steps forward, one step back.

Words matter.

Yes. No.

Come back.

Go away.

It's benign.

It's malignant.

Learning disabled. Special needs. Intellectual and developmental disabilities. Cognitively challenged.

Words change the way we think.

Everyone knows someone who is challenged in some way -- who has autism or cancer, who is head-injured or depressed, who has war wounds, who is old -- people who need extra time or help or support to get along in the world.

And in our world today, we assist these people. We -- most of us -- do not mock them.

There are exceptions.

On the Internet, when you Google "retarded" up comes a picture of a boy with Down syndrome. He has dark hair and a big smile and he's running a race, his feet in the air, his arms out straight as if he is flying. The picture is sweet. The boy looks happy. But the words on the picture are toxic: "Arguing on the Internet is like running in the Special Olympics. Even if you win, you're still retarded."

The word is a throwback and a setback. It's insulting, demeaning, and hurtful, and it is all over the place.

Legislation to change the name of the Department of Mental Retardation has been filed, and Commissioner Gerald Morrissey supports it.

"This is an issue about dignity and respect," he says. "About all citizens of the Commonwealth being treated with respect."

Call it a euphemism. Call it political correctness. Call it superfluous, getting rid of a word.

Call it whatever you want. Just don't call it the Department of Mental Retardation anymore.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at bbeckham@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES