Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mentally retarded does not equal stupid

I literally cringe whenever I hear someone call another person "retarded" when they have done or said something stupid. I feel in many ways it is ignorance on their part, or laziness. I have even seen and heard people using the term "developmentally disabled" in the same way. In using the terms incorrectly, they are doing a disservice to a group of people who, by no fault of their own, have diagnosed, medical disabilities.

To clarify my point, let's look at the definitions of each term.


1. Slow to learn or understand; obtuse.
2.Tending to make poor decisions or careless mistakes.
3. Marked by a lack of intelligence or care; foolish or careless: a stupid mistake.
4. Dazed, stunned, or stupefied.
5. Pointless; worthless: a stupid job.

noun. A stupid or foolish person.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


1. the act of retarding or state of being retarded.
2. something that retards; hindrance.
3. slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding and awareness, emotional development, academic progress, etc.
4. Music. a form of suspension that is resolved upward. Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

Developmentally Disabled:

a disability, as mental retardation or cerebral palsy, that begins at an early age and continues indefinitely, leading to substantial handicap. Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

The way I interpret each definition is that in the cases of retardation and developmentally disabled, it is not a choice. It is instead a physical diagnosis. It is not something they have control over or can help. However, being stupid is.

I have had the misfortune throughout the years to know and work with individuals of whom I would definitely refer to as stupid. They were generally careless in thought and action. Their actions usually resulted in mistakes which could have been avoided. But, I really don't need to go any further into this as I am sure you all know people who fit this description.

I have also been blessed to know and work with individuals who have a medical diagnosis of developmental disability. These are people that you may not have had the opportunity to meet. I work on a regular basis with six such women. In many ways they have become as close as family to me. They are a constant source of inspiration. They can learn, it is just that they learn differently. It is always a challenge for me to find the key to unlock that process. It is not their fault if they can not learn something, it is mine for not finding a way to teach them. I am constantly amazed and sometimes amused at their intelligence, particularly when I observe them interacting with new staff who don't know the rules and are frequently outsmarted! They are not stupid, (but sometimes I wonder about the staff that I work with...)

I have seen them struggle to understand why they cannot be like everyone else. Why they can't marry and have children. Why they can't do things that others can. I have helped them grieve over the loss of family members who died. Those were the same family members who ignored them and sent them away. I have spent holidays with them and watched their sadness when others left to go home to loved ones, knowing they had no one. They grieve, they hurt, they long for attachment and a sense of belonging just like you and I. They are not stupid.

My job is that of an advocate. My goal is to try to assist them in living their lives as close to normal as I possibly can. It is a challenge I happily take in helping them be a part of their community, just like everyone else. For the most part, in my experience, the individuals who I have worked with are the most accepting, loving, people I have ever known. They don't make judgements, perhaps because they know what it is liked to be judged. The only flaw I have seen is that they trust too easily and can be taken advantage of. It is a large part of the reason that they need to be protected by law.

I guess what I am asking here is that you take care in the words that you use. More people can be hurt by the careless use of language than you might know. By using the word "retarded" when you actually mean something else is doing a great disservice to a wonderful population that is by no means "stupid."

* This was originally published 11/26/2008 on my Newsvine column.


Blogger Caroline said...

Bravo Mary!! I think that many people do this, I"m certain I have done it as well - not proud of it, just being honest. I think that it is great when someone points out what should be obvious, but somehow hasn't reached a collective norm in society. It's like many things in life that we rush past and do not take the time to think about, and we should. Personally I thought the word was out of use - incorrect in terms of speaking of people who are developmentally disabled, but regardless it is a word that should be stricken from our vocabulary - as it can be used to negatively describe a person. I used to work with young children - terminal/medically intensive, and some of them had developmental disabilities. Agree with you on all of the positives of getting to know them, taking the time to understand what is going on and especially taking the time to have a relationship with them. Not done enough in this country. Soapbox moment - our understanding or I should say misunderstanding of people with developmental and physical disabilities, mental health issues and anyone else who is slightly different from "normal" is horrible. We choose to send them away, ignore and forget about them. They don't get the services, respect or understanding that they as HUMAN BEINGS deserve. I don't know what it will take for our country to acknowledge this and to do something about it, but I am so grateful for people like you and T and many, many others who champion, protect and speak out against wrongs for them, as they frequently don't have an audience to do so for themselves. Thanks for writing this and for being their advocate, I am happy to be reminded and so grateful for knowing you.

April 8, 2010 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger azsky13 said...

Whoa, thank you Caroline. I wrote this a couple of years ago in response to someone who used the politically correct term "developmentally disabled" to describe someone instead of stupid. It was an article on Newsvine and was in the title. I called him out in comments.

Yesterday I saw a video where someone was called "retarded" as an insult. It made me angry and reminded me of this article, so I thought I would revive it for my blog.

Thank you again for stopping by to read it and for commenting.


April 8, 2010 at 9:48 AM  
Blogger wholly jeanne said...

Thank you SO much for sending me a link to this beautiful and spot-on post. That old song about how words can never hurt me? Not so true. Words do and can hurt and hurt deep. While I dislike the term "retarded", I also dislike the term "developmentally disabled". (Not because it's not an adequate description but because my tongue gets all tripped up when I say it.) Mostly I wish there was a way we, as a society, could find our way to just calling them people. I'm so glad I met you.

July 25, 2012 at 10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand the posters point, but they are, in a way, denying the sad truth. Mentally retarded people can indeed be accurately described as stupid. Their IQ is very low. Therefor they make poor decisions, cannot comprehend basic concepts, and the like. Just because a word is offensive and politically incorrect, does not mean it doesn't hold truth. I have years of experience working with mentally rerarded people. And, just like anyone else, some of them are sweet, kind people. Some of them are nasty, terrible people. Just because someone is mentally retarded does not mean they cannot also happen to be a bad person. You need to look at it from an unbiased point of view. And the original author of this post is extremely biased. It's fine if they enrich your life, and you enjoy beibg around them. That's all well and good, but you shouldn't over estimate their intelligence. The word "stupid" may be offensive, yet that does not mean it isn't true. The original poster can call your average person "stupid" because they are irresponsible, lazy, offensive etc., you think nothing of it. Yet you take issue with calling someone with an IQ of 35 "stupid"? Doesn't make much sense. Yes it is an offensive term, but sadly, if you are mentally retarded, with a very low IQ, being labled as "stupid" is a very accurate term. Is it fair? No. Is it nice? No. But it's just the way it is. And if you are as ignorant and blind as the original poster is here, I feel sorry for you.

July 5, 2013 at 7:09 PM  

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