Bullying Cyberbullying — 02 November 2011
“That’s so retarded!” What!!??

Maybe I am just a little more tuned in to this because I was a special ed. teacher earlier in my career, or maybe because a dear friend of ours has an intellectual disability, but I am rather offended when I hear the phrase: “that’s so retarded!” For me, this is right up there with “that’s so gay!”

Our language is difficult enough to learn for people who are new to the language, without adding in phrases which make no sense and insult an entire population. I am not exactly fond of hearing children and adults use the word “stupid”, but I would much rather hear that than “retarded” or “gay”. People open their mouths ad say things that are insulting without ever thinking. Then they try to excuse their behavior by justifying it. Take the following scenario for example:

A friend of my daughters continually describes things as “retarded”. “That movie was so retarded. I mean that actress couldn’t act.”  “I can’t believe we have to read that retarded book.” “He is so retarded, he can’t even drive a car right.” “What a retard. I don’t know why she goes out with him.” Each time my daughter would say “don’t say that!! It’s not polite to use the word retarded as an adjective in place of ’dumb’ or ‘stupid’ or something else.” The girls would banter back and forth about the appropriateness of her using the word. This went on for over two years until both girls were away at college.

One day, about half way through their freshman year, my daughter snapped. She is quite capable of getting up on a soap box and letting people have it when she chooses to and this was one of those times. After listening to her friend go off on a tirade about all the “retarded” classes, professors, students, etc. my daughter told her if she could not be respectful, then they should just stop communicating. That’s what happened too. For over six months, my daughter and her best friend did not speak. Finally, one day this past summer, she received an apology from her friend.

I have been doing guidance all this week in fourth grade classrooms. As we review what bullying behaviors are, we discuss in depth two items: 1. relational aggression, particularly cliques and 2. name calling. The topic comes up about calling people, things, events and so on “gay.” The students understand how that could be an insult but they are floored when I tell them that using the word “retarded” in the same manner is also insulting.

Kids this age don’t mean to be cruel. They really don’t understand what they are saying. So many television shows and movies use the word “retarded” interchangeably with “stupid”, “clumsy”, “thoughtless”.  Whenever a character does something inappropriate, or impulsively; another character will say “don’t be such a retard”. Even on channels designed specifically for children, phrases like this fly out of characters mouths. I wonder sometimes if the shows writers ever stop and think about what is being said and what they are teaching children. Politicians, government officials,  and radio personalities, have all been chastised of late for misuse of the word. It’s  true that at one time in the special education field we did use the term “mental retardation” to refer to children who have intellectual disabilities. They, through no fault of their own or their parents, have retarded growth in learning, social skills, adaptive behavior, and gross motor. The term was originally used, because to retard means to slow or hinder advancement or educational growth. (Websters Dictionary)

When you substitute words such as “retarded” or “retard” as adjectives to describe a person or act that you feel is “silly”,” lame”, “ridiculous” or “stupid”, you insult and deeply offend the children, parents, siblings, grandparents, extended family, neighbors, friends, teachers and anyone else who loves, supports and advocates for a very special group of people who deserve our admiration. Everyday these wonderful children strive to learn, grow and participate in life to the fullest. When I need a break from the counseling office, I often find myself in a learning support classroom. I join in their activities, socialize with the students and let my stress slip away. There are days I wish I was back in the classroom working with such a genuinely loving group of students who want so much to learn. They don’t bully, they don’t insult, they don’t go out of their way to inflict any kind of pain or hurt on another. I sure wish we were all that way.

Please don’t use “retarded” as a way to insult or demean another person.

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About Author


After 16 years in the classroom MaryAnn Byrne became a nationally certified counselor and a licensed professional counselor, specializing in child and adolescent therapy and relational aggression. In 2007, MaryAnn became a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention trainer/consultant. She currently works as a school counselor in both elementary and middle school. Additionally, she supervises Olweus programs at the middle school level. She frequently conducts workshops for private schools, Girl Scouts and professional development for the school system. MaryAnn earned her master’s degree from Virginia Tech in counseling, pupil personnel services as well as a B.S. in special education and early childhood education from Radford University.

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