Tomorrow I meet for the second time with the undergraduate class I’m teaching this semester.  The class is called Disability, Power, and Privilege, and it’s about feminist disability studies.

During our first meeting we talked a bit about the rhetoric we use where disability is concerned.  I expect—and I’ve told them so—that we’ll all say things over the course of the semester that others in the class may find troubling or offensive, so it’s everybody’s job to assume that we’re all doing our best, and to call us out when we do wrong.

While this attention to rhetoric—people first language, for instance—is old news in disability studies and disability activism—indeed, in any of the civil rights movements of the 20th century—it’s important for my students.  And not just my students:  over the last several months I’ve been reading memoirs written by parents of children with disabilities, and one of the things that’s surprised me has been the frequency with which the term “retarded” appears in these memoirs, even in memoirs as recently published as 2009.

It’s a term that a number of disability rights organizations have targeted.  The Associated Press stopped using the term in 2008, and in 2010 legislation was approved that removed the term from all federal documents, replacing it with “intellectual disability.”  And yet it keeps being used, not only in memoirs written by authors who ought to know better, but by professionals I interact with on a daily basis.  The most recent occurrence was last week, and the person who referred to a question as “retarded” was someone who deals with diversity on a regular basis.

In his book Life As We Know It (1996), Michael Bérubé offers a clear and compelling refutation of this word and its cultural meaning.  Because of the word’s familiarity, and the ease with which it continues to permeate conversations in 2011, I’ll offer you—as I’m offering my class tomorrow—an excerpt from Bérubé:

But you know, there really is a difference between calling someone a “mongoloid idiot” and calling him or her “a person with Down syndrome.”  There’s even a difference between calling people “retarded” and calling them “delayed.”  These words may appear to mean the same damn thing when you look them up in Webster’s, but I remember full well from my days as an American male adolescent that I never taunted my peers by calling them “delayed.”  Even for those of us who were shocked at the frequency with which “homo” and “nigger” were thrown around at our fancy Catholic high school, “retard” aroused no comment, no protest.  In other words, a retarded person is just a retard.  But delayed persons will get where they’re going eventually, if you’ll only have some patience with them. (26)