Special Education

The New Slur Frontier

By Christina A. Samuels — June 08, 2010 1 min read
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Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic has a blog post up today about the use of the term “retard.” The comments are illuminating, but this exchange struck me:

ralphdibny: .... like actual evolution, you can't predict in advance which way it will go, and you can't rush it. You (and forgive me if I misinterpret your stance) seem to be implying that the word "retarded" has evolved into a new phase of meaning, and like "idiot" has moved from clinical term, to specific slur, to vague descriptor. But it hasn't yet. I know because people object to its use, in a way they don't to "idiot." Perhaps one day it will, but you can't tell people, "Hey--one day the word "retarded" will lose its offensiveness, so don't be offended now." Even though I suspect you are right. (BTW, I also suspect that the word "autistic" will move from a clinical term to a slur in my lifetime. I can already hear schoolchildren calling each other "tistic.") Lemmy C: Good call on "autistic." It is already used as an insult in certain kinds of discourse to describe people who put forward ideas that are considered too technological or rationalistic. (E.g., "libertarianism is applied autism.")

Seeing “autistic” used this way is totally new to me. Have others seen this?

And a note: though I try to be specific when I talk about disabilities, I have used the umbrella term “mentally retarded” or “mental retardation” in news articles, because the term is used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and statutes. There’s a move afoot, led by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, to change the term in federal government usage to “intellectually disabled.” Others use “cognitively disabled.” What term do you prefer?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.