Okay, so let’s talk about the word retarded. I feel like this is something I have to do, because I love using the word retarded, I use it on a regular basis, and a lot of people get their shit bent out of shape whenever anybody uses that word.
So let me explain this.
When I was a kid, a lot of grown-ups thought there was something seriously wrong with me. They didn’t know what the hell was going on, except that I was different in a vaguely creepy way. I could read the word pyramid, but not identify it by sight, I couldn’t tie my shoes, I couldn’t ride a bike, I started reading chapter books in the first grade, and I was obsessed with death.
Basically, I was hella disabled.
A lot of authority figures treated me really well and encouraged my intellectual development, because every adult in charge of kids secretly wants to be responsible for a prodigy.
But a lot of authority figures didn’t know what to do with me, and treated me with contempt or condescension. I resented this, because I knew from an early age that I was at least as intelligent as most of the adults around me, if not more so. But because I was different, I often got treated like I was an interesting problem. Adults did this increasingly as I got older, and I got shuttled from specialist to specialist, and appointment to appointment and referral to referral for years.
I got treated like I was retarded, just because I happened to be disabled.
There were kids in my elementary school who were much more seriously disabled than me. Before I knew I was disabled, I saw how kids and teachers treated these kids. They treated them like garbage.
My elementary school had an unofficial caste system: the kids in the gifted program were at the top, the kids in the mainstream classes were in the middle, and the kids in the special education classroom were considered untouchable.
Some of the more seriously disabled kids would get followed around and mocked by their bored non-disabled peers.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was also disabled, and categorically not too different from the untouchables. All my life I’d thought I was smart, but the fact of my disability made me question this. I’d seen how the disabled kids got treated at school, like they were bedshitting, bib-wearing halfwits. I tried to reconcile my self-image with my image of what it meant to be disabled, and it didn’t fit.
Shortly afterward, as my behaviour became increasingly eccentric, I became the target of bullies in my school. They made fun of my precocious vocabularly and strange gait and anything else they could think of.
By the time I went to high school I’d learned how to cover up my weirdness. I figured out how to game the system, and pretended to be as normal as possible. People pretty much left me alone, which is all I wanted.
In high school, as in elementary school, I witnessed an extraordinary amount of violence directed at disabled students. Everything I saw was verbal or attitudinal- never anything physical. It was more subtle and insidious than that. It seeped into the culture like chemicals into groundwater. I knew by this point that the disabled kids were my kin, but there wasn’t anything I could do to help them.
I developed survivor’s guilt and an intense, all-consuming disdain for cliques and communities. To this day I’ve never felt right being part of a group, with the exception of an Aspie group I joined in university. Being part of any kind of collective makes me itchy and nervous.
So basically, I’ve been in the trenches. I was treated like a retard for almost a decade, including two years in which I was bullied on a daily basis. I’ve been tested, assessed, reassessed, condescended to, and humiliated. I have seen bigotry, ghettoization, institutional discrimination, and more than anything else, a startling amount of apathy and incompetence on the part of people who are supposed to care for disabled people.
After being put through that neverending shit show, ain’t no-one can tell me not to use the word retarded.