Stop calling people ‘retarded’

It’s no laughing matter


Recently, people at Sussex have reminded me of just how acceptable it is to verbally bash the disabled.

The tour guide who compared his timid socialising to Asperger’s syndrome, the girl who asked for my assistance with her “retarded” searching skills to locate her bike, and the quizmaster who branded one team a “bunch of retards” due to their excessive loud noise, all led me to reflect on the position of this language.

Extreme drunkenness is being “spasticated”, drug induced behavior changes are “monging out”, even forgetting your keys is “retarded”. Sadly these are everyday, acceptable phrases in our vocabulary. Disability is important to Sussex, which provides specific housing, advisors and sports for the disabled. Therefore it’s crucial we keen essayists doing our “character forming” modules autocorrect our ableist language.

It would be reasonable to assume rationality would yield the most effect in the fight against those dissing the disabled. Yet, for every time you call anyone out on such language, you get the same empty apology: “sorry, I forgot”.

They’ve not “forgotten” the offensive nature of these remarks. The only forgotten thing is someone who is offended is present as they uttered it. Condoning albeist language is extreme apathy: people just don’t seem to care how the colloquial use of “retarded” equates disability with inferiority.

Detailing dire disabled conditions proves more effective. Graphic descriptions of lumping an 80kg human around and constantly cleaning his excrement, provoke angst, discomfort, guilt and sympathy. People have become unable to associate depressing images of disability with this brand of insult. They’re therefore less likely to repeat them as it becomes a conscious choice rather than the acceptable “habit” it’s often excused as.


Wheeling my brother around in public exposes people’s ambivalence with disability, and specifically a paradox in the attitudes between children and their parents. Generally, adults will avert their eyesight to practically deny the existence of disability, when children clumsily gawk in a concoction of confusion, shock and curiosity. My mum tries to harness this wonderment through encouraging conversation between gazing children and my brother. However this attempt to familiarise children with disability seems unidirectional, coming only from the side of the disabled. Typically the child’s parents teach merely to “stop staring”, to ignore the matter rather than explore it.


This means the average person is not sufficiently exposed to, or taught about disability. If the parent urged a mere “hello” to my brother , the child would learn how the disabled are not all so different, and the awkwardness of the parent and child would evaporate with the realisation a disabled person is just another person. Yet as long as the parents pass naïvety onto their children, the disability divide will continue.

This ambivalence permeates our media, which shapes our character. We are  constantly reassured  ignorance is acceptable. Frankie Boyle explicitly claimed those with Down’s Syndrome should die early, and Ricky Gervais persistently attempted to appropriate the word “mong”, naïve to its offensive history. A quick search of Kevin Kilbane on Twitter shows thousands who believe him to be “easily offended” by “mong” chants by West Ham fans.

Those of this belief must comprehend the fact using a word in a derogatory sense makes it inherently offensive to its subject. Calling a non-disabled person “retarded” is offensive to the disabled as calling a straight person “gay” is to a homosexual person. Associating a person’s character with inferiority makes it an insult.

Fortunately, exposure is increasing via disabled actors such as Liz Carr in Silent Witness and R.J Mitte in Breaking Bad, sporting greats like Ellie Simmonds and disability themed shows such as The Last Leg. In this proliferation of awareness, society, including Sussex, must embrace the issue, show the similarities, celebrate the differences and importantly, encourage interaction between children and their disabled counterparts.


Free speech is important, every person has the right to say every word. Yet, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, or you’re free from the consequences of your words. If your mate deserves shaming, by all means insult them relentlessly until your words have rendered them lifeless, just ensure you aren’t insulting anyone else in the process.