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The Value of One

Promoting dignity and respect for people with developmental disabilities.

By now, everyone knows that Rahm Emanuel is less than careful with his words, but this time, he said something we can’t overlook.

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In early February, Rahm Emanuel, Chief of Staff to President Obama, publicly used language that he now regrets when he stated to a group of fellow Democrats that their idea was “(BLEEPING) retarded. “  We have waited to comment because we wanted to see if the media and high profile leaders within the disability community would address the issue we believe is most important.

What may be implied but not often said is that the words “retard” and “retarded” are so commonly used by young and old that few are shocked by them.  In recent years though, self-advocates and family members have confronted the use of these words head-on.  When high profile people, websites, television and movies show disrespect to people with intellectual disabilities through words and negative depictions, people with intellectual disabilities and their advocates are expressing their displeasure and people are listening.  We think this is a good thing.

If Emanuel had said their idea was “idiotic” or “moronic,” no one would have flinched, yet these words were coined in the first part of the last century to describe the same population.   They were retired from popular use and “mental retardation” became the descriptor to reflect the fact that people with this disability generally learn at a slower rate.  Interestingly, since these words (moron, and idiot) are no longer seem as uncomplimentary labels for people with intellectual disabilities, they are more acceptable to use than the newer labels.

How do benign words used to describe people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities become pejorative over time when they didn’t begin that way?  We believe the answer is simple:  When the group associated with these words is devalued in the culture, most any word associated with them will become derogatory. “Retard” happens to be the go-to slang word for “dumb” and “stupid” and it is used by high school students to joke around and to put people down.   So says our student survey – more on that in the coming days.

So, any future word attached to this group has the same potential for becoming derogatory. What can we do to change this dynamic?  Can we change the culture so that it is more welcoming and positive toward people with intellectual disabilities?  Stay tuned.  We hope to share some of our thoughts with you in the coming days and we want to hear from you.

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