DR RADICA MAHASE
LAST week I wrote about an incident in which the mother of a little boy with autism went to the supermarket and an elderly shopper told her, “Why don’t you keep your retarded child at home?”
To be as direct as possible, for both the old and young to understand – that "R" word, the word "retarded" – it is a bad word. Generally, we assume that everyone knows this but given that people with autism are still being called retarded, we can instead assume that not everyone is educated or smart enough, have common-sense or respectful enough to know that the word "retarded" is offensive, hurtful, demeaning and disrespectful.
In the 1800s, individuals with mental disabilities were often referred to as "morons," "imbeciles," and "idiots." They were called "mentally defective" and they were kept hidden away from society. In the 1900s, the terms "mentally retarded" and “mentally handicapped" were used in medical circles, to refer to anyone with a developmental or intellectual disability.
The dictionary meaning of the word "retard" is to "hinder or to make something slow." The term "mental retardation" was thus used as a medical term for people with intellectual impairments. This term was actually meant to replace other terms which were considered more offensive. When it was introduced by the American Association on Mental Retardation in 1961, it was meant to be a neutral term. However, over time it was used in more distasteful manner, as synonyms to words such as "stupid" and in the TT case, "dotish."
As attitudes towards disabilities changed, the terms and words which were used, also changed. People with mental and intellectual disabilities began to express their anger and dissatisfaction with these words/terms. By the 21st century there were deliberate attempts to stop the use of those hurtful terms and attempts at labelling people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. There have been campaigns against the social stigma associated with having a developmental or intellectual disability.
In 2009, the Special Olympics started a campaign to Spread the Word to End the Word with the belief that "the world would be better if all people were valued, respected, embraced, included. "They invited the global community to pledge to promote inclusion in society. In October 2010, under US President Barack Obama, a bill known as Rosa's Law was passed. This law prohibited the use of the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" in federal records and replaced them with terms like "intellectual disability" and "individual with an intellectual disability."
Many people in TT haven’t kept up with these changes. Too many of us, both young and old, still believe that it’s okay to refer to a person with a disability as "retarded." When we use words like "retarded" we are perpetuating the negative stigma against people with disabilities and we are putting down persons with disabilities. The word "retarded" is not only offensive, it is downright rude and disrespectful.
If we want to create an environment that is accepting and inclusive of people with disabilities, then we need to change the way we refer to them, change the way we perceive them and definitely change the way we relate to them.
How can we do this?
First, by correcting those who might not know better. Let’s assume that someone who uses the "r" word just don’t know better, whether young or old, and let’s start correcting them.
While it is true that most parents/ caregivers of children with autism and other special needs are too busy taking care of their children to go around correcting people or trying to change people’s behaviours, we have to assume that if we don’t try to correct people or stand up for our special needs’ community, then some people will continue to think that it’s acceptable to use words like "retarded" and "dotish."
We need to get our society to understand that the new "r" word should be "respect." The word means "regard for other people’s feeling, wishes or rights."
In TT we don’t regard those with disabilities, generally, with any strong sense of respect. As a society, we are yet to acknowledge that persons who are "different" are still valuable members of our society, are still citizens of our country and simply put, are also human beings with rights and feelings, fully deserving of an equal place in society.
In order to get TT to understand and accept this, the new "r" word must be RESPECT.
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T