Social Labeling: Casual Disparagement of Intellectual Disabilities

What does one do when one’s professor labels a particular group of people as either “retarded” or “evil”? I am facing that situation right now, and these are my meditations on the subject.

I found my professor’s comment offensive on two counts. Personally, I happen to be associated with the group he labeled. But I also found it highly offensive that he used the term “retarded” to describe a group of people he despised.

I cannot claim originality in the thoughts I am about to offer. Many of them I have gradually gathered from various sources over the years, but, specifically, my sister put these ideas into words this summer far more eloquently than I ever will. With her permission, I will borrow from her for this post.

I have a close friend who has Down syndrome. This individual has an “intellectual disability.” (I believe this is a recommended term to describe the kinds of mental challenges which those with Down syndrome and other similar conditions face ***{see the note at the end of this post}).

“Retarded” is not just a medical term anymore. It has become a derogatory term used to compare people who do not truly have an intellectual disability to those who do. Thus, it degrades those who have an intellectual disability, and uses a group of real, marginalized people to insult others. If you have an intellectual disability or an edducational delay, you can be labeled as “retarded.” *** (see the note at the end of the post)

Apart from the general offensiveness of being labeled, this practice is extremely offensive to those who have an intellectual disability. Why should this particular group of individuals be the standard for an offensive label? Why should they be inherently insulted in someone’s effort to disparage a different individual or group who do not actually fit the medical description of having an intellectual disability?***(see note at end of post)

My sister expressed these ideas beautifully this summer, sharing her pain at seeing a young woman who has a true intellectual disability label herself as “stupid.” What have we done? As a society, we have taken intellectual ability and made it a standard for pride or shame. Those who find themselves with an IQ of a certain level also find themselves in a place of extraordinary privilege. Those who do not find themselves marginalized and despised, fit only to be used as an offensive label by the upper class of intellectuals. Worse yet, these marginalized individuals are taught to despise themselves and their own mental capacities.

I am not advocating that we should despise those who have more intellectual or educational abilities. I am, however, saying there is no individual who should not have the right to hold their head up and be able to embrace themselves and their own intellect and education. We should accord the same basic human regard and dignity to all individuals, regardless of the state of their intellect.

I often find myself failing miserably in this respect. When describing my friend with Down syndrome, I often hasten to assure my listener that this individual is very “smart,” listing all the reasons why I should be able to make this statement. I don’t think these statements are inaccurate or wrong in the sense that they do describe this individual without error, but I should not have to defend my friend’s intellect in order to affirm my friend’s worth as a person in someone else’s eyes.

The fact of the matter is, people who have an intellectual disability are fully human, just as those who do not have an intellectual disability are fully human. Both groups deserve our highest care and deserve to have their worth affirmed in our words and actions.

As to what I should do in the case of my professor, I am still considering. I find it easy to share my thoughts in the public arena, but, when I am face to face with the man who holds my grades in his hands, I find my courage greatly diminished. I do not feel that this is a case that necessarily requires either action or silence, so I will have to make my choice with proper care and thought.

For now, I am challenging myself to consider more carefully the labels I use to describe myself, my actions, those around me, and their actions. Am I using terms that insult individuals from one of the many marginalized groups in our society? Do I accept and affirm all individuals regardless of their mental capacities, societal status, etc.?

I hope each of you will consider the subject and contribute your own thoughts and experiences. Join in the conversation.

***”While it is still clinically acceptable to say ‘mental retardation,’ you should use the more socially acceptable ‘intellectual disability’ or ‘cognitive disability.’ NDSS strongly condemns the use of the word ‘retarded’ in any derogatory context. Using this word is hurtful and suggests that people with disabilities are not competent.”

You can find this quote on the National Down Syndrome Society page, “Preferred Language Guide – National Down Syndrome Society” at***


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3 responses to “Social Labeling: Casual Disparagement of Intellectual Disabilities”

  1. Laedy G says :

    What a wonderful way to approach such a difficult topic. I tend to spew self-defensive vitriol when offended. I also tend to communicate better in writing than speaking. My gut tells me I’d definitely say something, probably in e-mail, and this post (slightly edited) would make a perfect e-mail!

  2. skinnyhobbit says :

    I feel your prof is using rather “ableist” language. Do you think a polite email with a short explanation on how words like “retarded” dehumanise will work? Of course it’s highly intimidating to have to confront someone with so much authority over you..isthere any way you could do so anonymously?

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