I loved David Wilcox’s Chicago Reader article Human Care Bears about the cultural framing of people with mental disabilities. I am always profoundly frustrated by the way that critiques of critiques of language dismiss people feeling offended or having other deeply personal reactions to certain words. Wilcox’s writing about the word “retarded” is much more nuanced in its exploration of language and the way it describes or fails to describe people’s experiences. Wilcox explains how, having a sister with mental disabilities, his relationship with the word “retarded” is complicated and evolving he can find it degrading, employ it at times, and find himself apathetic about its casual use.
Through most of my teens and into my early 20s, I never hesitated to correct someone if I heard them use the R word inappropriately.
And then I eased up. Not altogether—I still consider retard, when directed at someone with an actual disability, a degrading term, and I’m not afraid to say so. But when I hear an acquaintance or a stranger toss off phrases like “that’s so retarded,” it hardly seems worth it. If it’s someone I care about, who I know will actually listen, then absolutely, I’ll take the time to explain why it bothers me. Otherwise, in my experience, pointing it out has just made people defensive, made me look self-righteous, and ultimately never changed a thing.
In his article he manages to offer, in part, the “sustained, thoughtful discussion” that he finds so missing in our society when it comes to talking about the word “retarded” (and really the way that language offends and mediates our society).
I really like the way he explains that both “retarded” and seemingly positive representations of mental disability fail to represent his sister’s reality.