Ignorance is a disease that people in today’s society adore spreading. Using derogatory terms to get a point across, to insult someone, or simply attempt to be funny shows the symptoms of this disease.

One term that is overused is “retarded.” In school, it becomes a comeback when someone can’t comprehend a situation. “You’re retarded,” an ignorant person will say. Not only are people described as retarded, but even situations can apparently be “retarded.”

So let’s actually learn what this term means. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word as, “a person who has slow mental development.” According to this definition, it should be okay to call someone a “retard” right? Wrong. Mental retardation is actually a medical disability and using the term as an insult is spreading the idea that anyone with it is stupid or a loser.

Until recently, doctors used the term to describe new-born babies that had Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other special needs that result in “retardation.” However, that term has officially become politically incorrect, so even if someone is using it in context, it’s improper. Doctors prefer to say “developmental delay,” which sounds much more comforting.

This rhetoric reinforces that children who have an intellectual disability have no potential to be successful in life. Using the term as an insult is demeaning and awful enough, without directly contributing to stereotypes. That one word has so much power to completely destroy someone’s self-esteem. People with a learning disability have great potential and can accomplish great things in life in their own ways.

It is important to think about the way the word came to be used, and that will help us understand why it is so damaging to use rhetoric like this. Originally, when retarded was an acceptable term for developmental challenges, people began to use the word to describe people they saw exhibiting some of those traits (all negative) with the word. Then, the word began to mean only those things, and more recently it is used as a generic negative word.

As the sister of someone with Down Syndrome, I hate hearing the word, not because I am ashamed or upset about my brother’s diagnosis, but because it reminds me of the challenges he faces in the world for something that is out of his control. Snorting milk out of your nose, having two tests on the same day, and forgetting to bring an umbrella are not things that ought to provoke the word.

Next time you hear someone say the “r” word, speak up. You have received the antidote for the ignorance disease, what you do with it is up to you!

[Image Attribute: Carle Alves]