By Beth Steinberg
Whether it’s about gender issues and sexuality, developmental difference, or politics, “retard,” is back – repurposed, reworked, and better than ever.
Are you a Libtard or a Libertardian? A Conservatard or a Neotard? A Gaytard, Fagtard or Lestard? Or maybe just a Tard, described in the Urban Dictionary as “one so retarded, they do not deserve the ‘re.’”
Squirming as you read those words? Sure you are. You’re a nice person. You don’t say the word ‘retard,’ certainly not to someone who’s actually retarded, meaning who has developmental delay, but you might use the word when you or a friend does something stupid or idiotic – you know, something that’s just ‘retarded.’ (A 2014 poll by the National Down Syndrome Society, noted that 90% of responders said exactly the above sentiments as to their use and misuse of the word.)
You might certainly use the word retard about anyone who’s on the opposite side of your political and religious beliefs, right? They are such lunatics after all. Horrible people, undeserving of your regard.
In 2017, trolling someone else’s feed, name calling, and plain old online-nastiness is the nature of social discourse today, aided and abetted by the invisibility-visibility cloak of social media.
To be mean and show our smarts? It’s an inalienable-online-right, and a Jewish one for sure, up there with buying bump stocks for our AK-47’s, or our Twitter feeds.
Recently, I was taken aback by a thread on Facebook – in response to an article about President Trump – where a commenter noted, “Please, he is an idiot … retarded people have an excuse for their behavior, Trumpturd … does not!”
Is that what people think? That if a person has a known developmental delay, he or she has the right to bad behavior? Or, the other persistent belief, that people with disabilities are dangerous.
A 2011 poll by Akim, an Israeli service provider and advocacy organization for people with developmental delay, reported that 25% of respondents believed that people with developmental delay are violent and threatening. A 2016 poll which measured the responses of people with and without disabilities, showed the kind of emotional disconnect seen regarding the use of the word retard. While people without disabilities responded more positively than in previous years as to befriending (70%), and/or living near someone (90%) who has developmental delay, people with disabilities reported that they are often spoken to rudely and inappropriately. Almost 50% of those polled said they’ve been attacked and abused by others because of their cognitive differences.
Who’s exhibiting bad behavior then?
Just this morning, as I gently nudged our 20-year son – he has developmental disabilities – through his morning routines, he paused to offer me a morning hug and a snatch of a song that was running through his head. After a moment’s irritation at his slowing us down during the morning rush, I laughed and thought to myself, “Akiva is such a nice guy, why don’t people appreciate that more about him?”
Let me put that better. Akiva who prefers touch to language, often forgets to use language when interacting with others. We all remind him, especially when helping him facilitate conversation with others. But in those awkward first moments, especially if they don’t know him, they’ll look at me and say, “it’s okay, it’s okay,” and I say, “it’s not okay. Akiva wants to make conversation, and if you’ll work with him, he can.” If Akiva has a reactive moment of frustration and verbal fatigue where he might pinch or scratch someone, he is always asked to reckon with his behavior, as it is not nice nor is it acceptable. His developmental differences do not allow him to be an unpleasant person.
Even more so, I’ve never, ever heard him name call anyone. It’s just not something he’s ever considered as a way of interacting with others.
But back to that Facebook thread and the skewed notion of “retarded people have an excuse for their behavior,” I commented, “I’m no fan of 45 but would ask you not to compare those with developmental delay as having an excuse for bad or ‘idiotic’ behavior … Being retarded cognitively, means your development and your understanding and ability to gain certain skills, may be delayed, but that may not delay your understanding and caring of others. Retarded does not mean you’re an asshole.”
Language matters. Language matters. Language really matters.
Beth Steinberg is Executive Director of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem.