The plain and simple answer to this question is: never. The word retarded has increasingly become a part of everyday language. When did that become okay? The term mental retardation is no longer used as a disability classification in the educational system. Students who were once classified as mentally retarded are now intellectually disabled, making an even stronger case that the word retarded should not be used.
Most people who use the R-word do not think about their intended meaning when they use it in a sentence. It is not used as a term of praise. As an educator, I often heard my students say things like, “This assignment is so retarded.” I used to take this opportunity to discuss the significance of the R-word and how we need to say what we really mean. “What you meant to say was, This assignment is really boring.” Better yet, “This assignment is not teaching me anything and I do not feel engaged.” The last one may have been wishful thinking on my part! However, the premise still stands that we need to address the issue and teach our young people about the significance and perhaps unintended consequences of using the R-word.
John Franklin Stephens, a young man with Down Syndrome, stated,
“To all of you who use it, let me say it one more time, THE R-WORD HURTS. You don’t have to aim the word directly at me to hurt me and millions of others like me who live with an intellectual disability. Every time a person uses the R-word, no matter who it is aimed at, it says to those who hear it that it is okay to use it. That’s how a slur becomes more and more common. That’s how people like me get to hear it over and over, even when you think we aren’t listening. People who live with an intellectual disability do not have an easy life. We have to fight to understand what the rest of you take for granted. We fight for education. We fight to live among the rest of you. We struggle to make friends. We often are ignored, even when we have something to say. We fight so hard to be seen as whole people. It hurts so much, after all that struggle, to hear you casually use a term that means that you assume we are less than whole.”
They are listening. They can hear. We all hear. The next time you hear young people using the R-word, ask yourself, “When is it okay to use the word retarded?” Then share this chart (above), you will be amazed how quickly the R-word can be eliminated from their vocabulary.