You’ve probably heard that TV chef Paula Deen has gotten into a lot of trouble because at some point in the past, she used the “n-word.”
But if she or just about anyone else short of the president had called someone a “retard” or used the phrase, “That’s retarded,” it wouldn’t have merited more than a news brief. And that attitude is something People First, a group of Arkansans with developmental disabilities, would like to change.
During a press conference at the Capitol July 1, some of the group’s members asked their fellow Arkansans, nicely, to stop using that word to describe them or anyone else. The vice president, Alan Plumlee, 56, of Harrison — married and a 25-year employee of Walmart — explained why during his turn behind the podium. “The ‘r-word’ is hurtful,” he said. “It’s degrading. It can cause a person to doubt themselves, doubt their self-worth. It also takes away their dignity and pride.”
The effort to end the use of the “r-word” is part of a national movement begun by the Special Olympics. More than 400,000 people have signed an online pledge not to use the word at the website, www.r-word.org. In 2010, Congress passed a law with no dissenting votes requiring federal documents to use the term “intellectual disability” instead of “mental retardation.” (Congress wasn’t even unanimous when it declared war on Japan.) Forty-three states including Arkansas have passed similar language.
Members of People First believe the “r-word” has a similar effect for them as the “n-word” has for African Americans. Society wisely has decided — without government coercion – that the “n-word” has caused so much pain to so many people that it is worse than profanity. People First would like society to make the same decision about the “r-word.”
It can’t be denied that some people have intellectual challenges to overcome, and words shouldn’t be banned or replaced in order to hide that fact.
But the “r-word” has become so corrupted that it no longer communicates a medical diagnosis. Most people would understand it would be hurtful to call a person with an intellectual disability a mean name to their face. But in casual conversation, “That’s retarded” has come to refer to someone who is acting stupidly. In most cases, it’s not meant to be harmful, but what’s really being said is, “That was dumb or self-destructive — just like a person with an intellectual disability would act.”
That’s just wrong. We all know intelligence doesn’t have much to do with how smartly people manage themselves. There are many high IQ people whose lives are a mess. Some of the smartest people in America nearly ruined the economy a few years back playing games with the financial system. Meanwhile, Plumlee has held a job continuously for 25 years and been married to the same woman for 17. Not too long ago, he and his wife, April, went on a cruise together. So maybe instead of saying, “That’s retarded” when describing an act of stupidity, people ought to say, “That’s like something the big banks would do.” And when describing a responsible lifestyle or an intelligent choice, they ought to say, “That’s like Alan Plumlee.”
Getting rid of a word won’t change much unless people change their attitudes as well, and the attitude that needs to go away is that a person’s intellectual disability is the only quality that defines them.
But attitudes can take a while to change. In the meantime, Joel Fuller of Searcy, president of People First, has a simple solution to help people communicate better. “Say what you mean,” he said in his speech on the Capitol steps. “Just say, ‘That doesn’t make sense,’ or ‘That’s dumb,’ whatever, instead of using the ‘r-word.’”
Who could argue with that? It’s like Alan Plumlee.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.