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The Dreaded R Word.

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

RETARD. There I said it. I even said it in shouty capitals.

Chances are if you have a special needs child, or really just any sort of manners, you’ll find the word offensive on some level. I’d like to talk about the one word that seems to anger so many and share my personal views on what I really think about it. The reason I want to discuss it is because like so many things in this genre, we just skirt around it . I don’t care if you agree with me or not and most of you won’t, but its always been a weird subject for me, and its never really spoken about in depth.


For me growing up the term “Mentally Retarded” and even “Retard” was a medical term for someone with learning disabilities. It wasn’t an offensive phrase or insult because it simply described a type of medical condition. In fact in my school days if you wanted to offend someone and imply they were stupid, your go to insult was “Spastic” or “Spaz” and of course the all time classic, “Joey”.

For those non British children of the 70’s, Joey Deacon was a young man who had pretty severe cerebral palsy and he was made famous by the mind numbingly boring childrens show, Blue Peter. The show itself was very popular when kids TV shows were pretty limited so you took what you could get. It was boring and do goody, but everyone watched it and most parents actively encouraged it. I assume that by showcasing Joey Deacon on the nations flagship kids show, it was not only an attempt to raise money for charity (which they did very well at) but also to bring disability into people homes and open discussions about difference.

I didn’t quite work out like that though. This was the late 70’s to early 80's and disability to this level was still a bit weird, odd and frankly embarrassing. You rarely even saw people like this because they were in homes or institutions and hidden away from the “Normals”. No ones parents really talked to their kids in any depth about it. Well, mine certainly didn’t. I think I got told he had brain damage and that was it. But I wasn’t told why he dribbled, why he made funny noises. Why was he all curled up? How did it happen? Was he stupid? Why did his arms fly about? As such my generation never really quite got the point other than we were to feel sorry for him as he was sub standard. So of course it wasn’t long before the unforgettable screams across the playground of “You're a Joey” and “Don’t be such a Deacon” began. In fact if I really wrack my brains I could probably come up with hundreds of variations on a “Spastic” or “Joey” insult. If I remember rightly, to my utter disgust, I was really rather good at them.

Now I only found out after having my daughter that the term “spastic”, in its correct form, is simply reference to tightened muscles that come with various brain injuries and it has nothing to do with your mental capacity whatsoever. The term “spastic” was however once used as a generic term for cerebral palsy and even The Spastic Society used it when naming their charity. Of course we all know how well that went and before long anyone who did anything remotely dumb, silly, embarrassing or clumsy was branded a “Spastic” by their mates. The term became so far removed from what it was intended to describe and instead became a legendary playground insult (when “Joey” perhaps didn’t quite hit the mark) that The Spastic Society renamed their organisation Scope. A little bit of reading tells me the word was chosen as it made no reference to disability and could not be turned into an insult or derogatory term. Hmmm apparently not true. Soon a new improved verbal slap was born and “Scopey" became the 2.0 version of Spastic or Joey. Amazing how adaptable society is aye?

But lets go back to the dreaded “R” word, as its often now referred. Such a shameful word apparently, that like the “C” word and even “Voldermort”, many cant bear to say it out loud. In fact, if saying “Voldermort” in anything other than a whisper can potentially conjure him up, then maybe that’s why we shouldn't say “Retard” for fear of making them appear all around us?


But, you want to know what phrase I hate more? “Developmental Delay”. Most people wont of heard that term, but as I found out in 2011, that’s the nice new sugar coated way of saying Mentally Retarded in the under 5s. When I was told Alice had Developmental Delay at 5 months old, I can honestly say my inside voice said “Oh thank fuck for that. It means she will catch up. At least shes not Mentally Retarded because that’s permanent”. Turns out she was just that, and it was just societies way of trying to make it sound nicer. FFS. I was livid. I felt like Id been lied to. It was at that point I began my inner struggle with poncy words and pretty phrases vs brutal but honest ones. People "loosing" children is another one, but Ill save that for a friend who has actually been bereaved. If Alice ever dies and someone tells me I 'lost" her I may well slap them.


I do think its important to make a distinction here though. If someone uses the words “Mentally Retarded” or ask me if Alice is Mentally Retarded, with no malicious intent, I don’t mind.

Sure my stomach tightens and I cringe inside but 9 times out of 10, its just a wrong use of phrase. Jeez I can barely keep up with the correct terminology and I live in the world of disability, so how can I expect others to be down with the kids and up to date with the correct disability lingo? For me there is a big difference between using out of date terminology and using the word “retard” as an insult. But even with that in mind, if I hear someone calling a school mate a retard or an adult referring to themselves as one, for loosing their handbag or forgetting where they parked their car, apart from the inner cringe, I don’t see how it reflects on my daughter. Retard (as far as Im concerned) now means fuckwit, dumbass, stupid, someone who should know better but doesn’t, a fool and a bit of a prat. Is Alice any of those things? Categorically not. And that’s not because Im her Mum or in denial its because its true. Shes got a lower IQ than her peers, everything is incredibly hard for her to do and learn than most people, but is she a dumbass or stupid? Far from it. She certainly not a fuckwit. There is a whole lot of smarts that goes on in that crazy brain of hers, as I believe is the case for all mentally disabled people.

So who does this word now describe to me? Certain current world leaders. People who are bigots and racists and who look down on people, those who had access to the best education and are still stupid and ignorant, those who don’t care to learn because they think they know best, those who bully and manipulate. Those are the true definition of what this word has become, not anyone like my daughter. So surely to be offended by the word I have to believe it applies to her and I simply don’t. Incidentally the irony of said "World Leader" mocking a man with Cerebral Palsy is not lost on me.

I guess the bottom line is that whatever word we choose to describe people who are different to the norm it will inevitably get abused in some way. So what do we do? Keep changing the damn words? Well that’s the current way of thinking and I think its madness. Its like the “Don’t mention the war” scene from Fawlty Towers, its so silly its laughable. Why cant we talk about this, have a discussion about this? These words arnt nearly as funny or insulting if someone has sat down and talked to a class of school kids about it, honestly and openly.

However, I think it safe to say just don’t use the word Retard in any situation, not even when talking about fuckwitted Presidents. Try to steer your kids away from using it, because it does offend an awful lot of bloody remarkable people. But better still, explain it to you r kids, and explain why its offensive, what it means, how it came about etc. And of course it goes without saying that this applies to any derogatory term for any minority group.

NB: Im spelling out the painfully obvious here, as there will always be one who has to respond with "Why cant we all just be kind to everyone, not just the disabled"? Well thats because very few people are, sadly, and thats life. Get used to it.


And case you are wondering what Alice actually “is’ in terms of correct terminology, she has moved through Developmental Delay (DD) to the more funky Globally Developmentally Delayed (GDD) and at the age of 7 she proudly gained her life time certification of Intellectual Disability (ID).

Confused? Yep, me too.


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