The R Word Question

Re: “Human Care Bears: Rahm Emanuel’s ‘retarded’ outburst made good headlines, but the way some advocates portray the mentally disabled is far more offensive,” by David Wilcox, February 25

I found your piece to be a breath of fresh air. As the father of a severely autistic 16 y/o boy who had to be (and I mean HAD to be) sent off to live in a residential program when he was 12, the line that most hit home was: “My mom lived every day with the fear that when she and my dad both passed away Jenny might find herself, alone and defenseless, at the mercy of strangers.” That is the thought that wakes up many parents of such people in the middle of the night. I know it does us.

David Royko

I like your article, and as someone who had a family member who was mentally challenged, I can relate to a lot of what you say. But I have to say that if John McGinley’s statement is “one of the most ignorant and dehumanizing characterizations of the mentally challenged” you have ever seen, then you, sir, have lived a charmed life. For McGinley to claim that the mentally challenged are incapable of hatred is of course not true and a bit patronizing. Yeah it’s a stereotype, but I don’t see anyone being too quick to dismiss it. Believe me the beliefs about the mentally challenged get far more venomous, ignorant and hurtful than what McGinley said.


Thanks for your article. As a sibling of three men with developmental disabilities I “get” a lot of what you are saying. However, I don’t use the R word. I know it hurts at least 2 of my brothers.

My older brother fell through the cracks all of his life and only had a diagnosis of High Functioning Autism in his later 40s. He clearly knew the negative connotation of the word since he often said, “Well you know I am not retarded like my brothers.” I am happy to say he that now he is part of a self-advocacy group and he is learning not to put his younger brothers down and instead advocate for himself and his sibs.

Nora Handler

Thank you for telling the truth! As the mother of a loving, exuberant teenage son who has a wonderful sense of humor as well as severe autism, I enjoyed every word. Your Care Bear analogy is dead-on. (As well as eye-catching.) And Erma Bombeck’s “chosen for sainthood” theory is also saccharine and patronizing. It absolves other people of “survivor’s” guilt while expressing their unspoken gut reaction: “Better you than me.”

B.E. Pinkham

Good points, Dave. Thank you for having the guts to make them. But I beg to differ on your final point: Individuals with intellectual disabilities fall within a wide and diverse spectrum. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people with intellectual disabilities using their voices to speak out against Tropic Thunder nationwide, including the self-advocates who helped us organize a demonstration over the controversy brought about by the film here in NYC. Metaphorically and literally speaking they stood up for themselves quite capably and added a level of depth and authenticity to the debate that neither a sibling or even another disabled person can bring. The bottom line? Every time the words “retard” or “retarded” are used they hurt, demean and dehumanize people with intellectual disabilities. Intended or not. No one I’ve ever met has liked being defined by that label. It’s their opinions, and their voices, not yours or mine that matter most.

Lawrence Carter-Long

Executive Director

Disabilities Network of NYC

If people with intellectual disabilities are telling us the word retarded is hurtful, then we simply need to believe them and change our language. To not do so, and then attempt to rationalize it is akin to denying them the feelings they have been very articulate in communicating.

Marsha Rose Katz

Missoula, Montana