Labels and Disability

“Special Olympics and Best Buddies International Celebrate 8th Annual Spread the Word to End the Word Day on March 2nd” describes global efforts to inform people of the misuse of the word “retarded.” The article references a recent report by Maria Shriver, from which three key numbers emerge: Although 89% of Americans think it’s offensive to call someone with clear intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) “retarded,” more than half think it’s acceptable to use the word to jokingly reference oneself, and 38% think it’s okay to use the word on a friend doing something foolish. Millenium women are found by a Harris Poll conducted survey to be most accepting of IDD but there is much progress to be made even for them. What gives this word so much destructive power? I look to the Naming section of Eli Clare’s “Freaks and Queers” for insight.

Clare goes word by word, from handicapped to disabled to cripple to… retard. He recalls the specific pain that word caused him in childhood, whether it was spoken out of pity or with intent to bruise. Though he embraces some of those terms in an act of defiance, that word is not among them. Neither is “freak.” Says Clare, in exploring the untouchability of the word “freak,” “The social construction of freaks always relied upon the perceived gap between [able-bodied] normality and a freak’s abnormality” (p. 76). In denying the spectrum of human bodies and minds, society seeks to reinforce binaries of ability, gender, sexuality, etc through the fabrication of the “original” from the “other.” Using pathological, offensive, and outdated terms does nothing to advance humanity’s interests, and is in fact destructive.