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Retarded? Disabled? People With?

The other day, right here on the big blog, I used these words: "mentally retarded" and "retardation."

Some readers--and some folks in the D.C. government--took this as a crime against humanity.

Some were not especially polite about it, but one reader, Rachel K., was exceedingly nice, so she gets her say:

"Mentally retarded" is "both a term no longer regularly used in the disability community (we now use developmental or intellectual disability), and also phrased in a way that is not appropriate. In the disability community, we use 'people first' language; for example, we refer to 'people with developmental disabilities' rather than 'the disabled.'"

She goes on to note that "this is not just an issue with your column--the Post as a whole has not adopted people first language."

She's absolutely right about that, but I can't imagine we would ever do such a thing. For one thing, such politically correct language is designed to push people away from plain speaking. For another, it's wordy. "Mentally retarded" appears routinely in this paper and it's in the names of government agencies and even the American Association on Mental Retardation, which defines the term like so: "Mental retardation is a term used when a person has certain limitations in mental functioning."

It is of course true that language evolves. Just last week, advocates for the retarded went before the D.C. Council to push for revisions in the law to eliminate references to "idiots," "lunatics" and "afflicted with disability." Obviously, medical professionals no longer use "idiot" or "imbecile" the way they did a few decades ago. But to lump "afflicted with disability" into the same category of obsolete usage is not quite honest; the objection there is different--it's an attempt to use language to make a political point. And that is not the job of a newspaper or of the government.

Our job is to try to avoid politically loaded terms from all sides and to be as clear and plainspoken as possible. So we generally eschew the "people with" constructions that advocates are now trying to write into the law in the District.

You won't be reading about "differently abled" folks in the paper. Though I'm told we are considering a new term for use in obituaries: "differently pulsed."

By Marc Fisher |  June 15, 2006; 7:16 AM ET
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Comments

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I can remember a girl in college who insisted that the handicapped must be called "people with different abilities." What then are the rest of us?

Common sense is apparently one of those rare things that increases the more you share it with others. Thank you for sharing yours with us.

Posted by: athea | June 15, 2006 8:47 AM

I think you could have made the same point without being quite as snotty as you were in the last paragraph.

Posted by: Beth | June 15, 2006 9:14 AM

I remeber a few years ago when the announcement was made that "retarded" was no longer the preferred term because it had become a pejorative. Idiot and imbecile took the same course in their lives. They started out as proper terminology, came to be seen as epithets, and then were replaced. The same will be the case for the newest terms. In five or ten years kids will be calling one another disabled or delayed. The advent of the playground cry "You're so developmental" will be the beginning of the end for this terminology.

Posted by: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose | June 15, 2006 9:16 AM

Your right Marc, let's call a spade a spade and you an idiot for confusing political correctness with respect for others. I'm sorry, I don't recall seeing developmental disability on the platform of either of the two main political parties, therefore, is it really a political issue. Well apparently to you it is and, gosh darn it, no one is going to tell old Marc Fisher what words to use! Marc, I suggest that you and everyone else in society limits their speech EVERYDAY out of respect for others. You have proclaimed that you will refuse to do so for those with developmental disabilities. We have a word for people like you Marc, bigot. By the way, who's attempting to impugn your right to be an a$$h0le, the bleeding heart liberals or right wing lunatics?

Posted by: Father of Son w/ DS | June 15, 2006 9:17 AM

Overall, good thoughts - but the parting shot lost respect points.

Posted by: J | June 15, 2006 9:32 AM

Father of Son w/DS--

Would you consider yourself to be differently tempered?

Posted by: My goodness! | June 15, 2006 9:50 AM

3.5 million homeless people in America, 45 million people without health insurance, and a national debt soon to top $10 trillion ... and this is the crisis we're worrying about. "People with developmental disabilities" rather than "the disabled."

Posted by: Miles | June 15, 2006 9:53 AM

MArc
This is a very old debate within the disability community. And as in many cases , there are differing viewpoints and some take a good idea to the extreme. The most sensible seems to be the "people first" approach. Regardless of our ability--mental, physical,emotional, developmental,etc, we are first of all people. What we may or may not "have" comes second. So it is a person with a disability, not a disabled person. The adjective often becomes too defining. A person with mental retardation is still a person, he/she is not just "retarded".
My guess is that at one time or another you may have had a cold. That doesn't make you a cold person now does it?
A bigger problem is when people who supposedly are serving people with disabilities stiil refer to those they serve as "the disabled and disadvantaged"--like the local Goodwill ads. Thye don't seem to get it !

Posted by: jmsbh | June 15, 2006 9:53 AM

Marc, you seem to resent any suggestion that people should make any effort whatsoever to consider other peoples' feelings.

This is a recurring theme in your writing.

Posted by: That WAS a snotty parting shot | June 15, 2006 9:54 AM

No My goodness, I consider myself angry at the fact that in this day and age people can still find it acceptable to qualify, condone and excuse bigotry.

Nice attempt at confusing the issue by drawing attention to the tenor of my statement rather than it's substance.

This isn't about me it's about Fisher's arrogant insistance on being disrespectful in a public forum.

Posted by: Father of Son w/ DS | June 15, 2006 9:54 AM

Whoops, I meant people's.

Posted by: Renegade Apostrophe | June 15, 2006 9:55 AM

I can see the point about the terminology. But, I also feel like "so what?" I mean, in this day, people are ALWAYS going to offended by something, some lable, some characterization . . . I echo one other poster that with so many other really pressing issues facing us, this is what some people focus on?

And to the father with a DS son . . . not using your chosen terminology does not a "bigot" make. It's a difference of opinion not on the same level as denying fundamental rights to someone based on their disability, race, etc. And, frankly, using that label only dilutes true bigotry that does exist in this country.

Posted by: JS | June 15, 2006 10:11 AM

So, a community of people comes to a reasonably wide-spread consensus on how it wishes to be referenced, the "people-first" language noted by Rachel K. Without explaining its intent and logic, you cite other terms ("differently abled") that have largely fallen out of favor, do not conform to the "people first" convention, and declare it all politically correct doublespeak. Is "person with a disability" so impenetrably dense or sickeningly patronizing? Are the extra 9 or 10 characters an unmanageable burden? Did you take a similar stand as African-American and other ethnic communities made similar transitions from such terms as negro, black, and Oriental? Given the widespread acceptance of those new labels in the Post, would you maintain your position that they also "push people away from plain speaking?" If we are going to stick labels on groups of people for the sake of 'plain speaking,' we ought to give those same people the courtesy of adjusting our vocabulary when they feel that their label acquires a stigma.

Posted by: dgb | June 15, 2006 10:11 AM

How about we focus on the treatment of these people rather than what they should be called.

Posted by: John | June 15, 2006 10:14 AM

I'm reminded of that late-era "Bloom County" cartoon (or was it "Outland" by then?) where the brain-transmogrified and excruciatingly-PC Steve Dallas was correcting his old-country mom who was referring to "colored people" [paraphrased from memory]:

"So what do I call them? Blacks?"
"No!"
"Negroes?"
No, no, no, NO! The proper and culturally correct modern term is 'persons of color'."
"Persons of color." "Yes."
"People of color." "Yes."
"........... colored people." "NO!!!!!!"

Posted by: Al in Baltimore | June 15, 2006 10:15 AM

JS wrote "And to the father with a DS son . . . not using your chosen terminology does not a "bigot" make"

Well if it was just I that came to this conclusion, then your statement would be correct. But it isn't just myself, it's the consensus of people affected by developmental disabilities, their families, and the professionals that serve them.

As someone pointed out above, when a community reaches consensus on how they wish to be characterized in public fora, then it is the right thing to do to respect that consensus. Hey, you and Fisher can call my son retarded all you want, but it's still disrespectful.

You don't get to decide, I don't get to decide, the community in question does and that decision has been made.

Posted by: Father of Son w/ DS | June 15, 2006 10:17 AM

Kudos, Sir. Some of the comments below prove your point. Thanks for standing up against the perpetually whiny. Especially this dad a few comments down.

Posted by: FisherWatch | June 15, 2006 10:20 AM

Sorry, I can't see how Fisher is a bigot here; he isn't arguing for discrimination against people with disabilities, he's not making fun of them, he's just calling it as he and many ordinary folks see it, without any bias. Insisting on politically correct language is not going to change anything; it's just a feel-good move that distracts from the pressing, core issues.

Remember when [fill in the blank]-challenged was introduced years ago? Before long you had follicle-challenged [bald], altitudinally-challenged [short], and so forth.

You can't generate respect just by changing language. Until you change attitudes, the new language will just be twisted into disrespect (one can sneer while saying African-American or Asian, and many do). And (to be cynical), given how little respect so many people have for "ordinary" persons, is putting "people first" really going to help here? No. More mainstreaming, support for jobs and special education, and Special Olympics does far more good than fighting over names.

Posted by: isangeles | June 15, 2006 10:20 AM

You trade in the currency of words and ideas as a newspaper man, but balk at exactitude. Something like this can sum up an entire career. Own up to your own mistakes, and not at the expense of a group already subjected to pervasive discrimination in nearly all facets of worldly existence. You're on the defensive--wasting even more time with this verbal diarrhea--for a reason.

Posted by: Son of a PERSON who uses a wheelchair. | June 15, 2006 10:21 AM

Ah, more political correctness.

"Are the extra 9 or 10 characters an unmanageable burden? Did you take a similar stand as African-American and other ethnic communities made similar transitions from such terms as negro, black, and Oriental?"

Sorry, but "African-American" is cumbersome (you try fitting it into most headlines!) and worse, not always accurate if used to refer to skin color. Technically, if you were a Caucasian Afrikaner who emigrated here from South Africa, you'd be "African-American." Same thing with Egyptians who are in the U.S. -- remember what continent Egypt is on.

Oh, and by the way, "Negro" is properly capitalized. The lower-case usage is archaic and largely used in a derogatory manner. (Just being correct, you know.)

Posted by: Vincent | June 15, 2006 10:21 AM

Father of Son w/DS--

So it's not alright for Marc to use the term "disabled person", but it is alright for you to call him an a$$h0le? Shouldn't you first check with him to see what "people first" label he'd like you to apply to him? Maybe he's merely a "person of differing opinion." Or, if you must go there, a "person of generous anus endowment."

Posted by: Who's a Bigot? | June 15, 2006 10:21 AM

Physically-challenged is another term. I'm physically-challenged (just watch me run). One comedian wondered whether brown rice should be called "rice of color." Of course the "of color" term, besides being gramatically awkward (and wrong), implies Caucasians have no color at all. What's sad is that, in an effort to counteract years of prejudice, some have gone far enough to give fuel to those who want to continue using prejudicial terms.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2006 10:22 AM

Maybe one day Marc will be blessed with a special needs child so he can truly see how these words hurt and are limiting. It is amazing what having one of "those" people in your family does for your feelings about hurtful words. My daughter is 4. She has CP and is developementally delayed. Before she was diagnosed I would use the term "I am so retarded" all the time. Now I never do and it cuts like a knife when I hear others doing it. I do not know how far my daughter will be able to go in this world but if using other words helps her feel better about herself and her place in the world then YES I am going to do it.

Posted by: Momma Daria | June 15, 2006 10:25 AM

Another issue that gets overlooked in this debate over terms is that the mushier the term, the less useful it is in conveying actual information. For example, a blind person and a developmetally disabled person have very different needs and challenges compared to people who do not face either of those challenges, but to describe either one as a "person with a disability" tells me nothing about that person's needs. I would submit that in any conversation/writing/etc. in which the fact that a person has a disability is legitimately even mentioned, the actual disability should be identified, otherwise there is no point.

So, would Rachel have us say "person with blindness" rather than "blind person" when alerting, say, a teacher to the fact that a student has different-from-average needs? What, exactly, does that achieve?

Posted by: plain speaker | June 15, 2006 10:26 AM

It appears as if MF is not only a bigot but a censor too! What's wrong Marc, you can dish it out but you can't take it? Typical bully.

Posted by: Father to 4 Humans | June 15, 2006 10:33 AM

Plain Speaker has a good point which should be addressed.

Posted by: Mark | June 15, 2006 10:35 AM

plain speaker, you miss the point. "Blind" is not, in and of itself offensive. The blind community has not expressed any such sentiment. Retarded has been rejected by those affected and associated with developmental disability.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 10:35 AM

As someone who writes professionally, let me tell you: YES, it becomes critically important to save as many words and even characters as possible. Until you've had the figurative chainsaw and weed-wacker taken to your carefully-written prose to fit it into the alloted space--or, as in my case, had to wield same over someone else's text--you'll probabbly never appreciate the economy in the simpler-but-politically-incorrect "blacks," "Indians", "retarded," etc. over their far-longer PC substitutes, especially when whatever term is in question has to be used multiple times in a story. Writers such as Fisher and myself are all too painfully conscious of the need for word economy.

This should not apply in most websites and spoken usage, where there are far fewer space/time constraints.

And, yes, word usage changes over time. With the historical writing and editing I do, I have to keep multiple vintages of stylebooks and style manuals about. I'm sure if I look in my 1950 NY Times stylebook, it'll tell me that "idiots" is no longer acceptable and that "retarded" is the preferred term. Eventually we're simply going to run out of euphemisms as each successive generation of terms is rendered poisonous on the school playground or wherever. I'm sure schoolyard bullies are taunting kids today by calling them "special."

Posted by: Alexander | June 15, 2006 10:39 AM

"Eventually we're simply going to run out of euphemisms as each successive generation of terms is rendered poisonous on the school playground or wherever."

And? Shall we just use whatever words we want regardless of whether they offend the people to whom they refer?

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 10:41 AM

As the mom of an 11 yo boy with severe mental retardation, I've struggled with the term for many years. My skin crawls when I recall growing up in the 70s when "RETARD!" was a common school yard insult. Crawls even more when I hear people using it still today!

However, in my son's case, "mental retardation" is part of his medical diagnosis, along with "right hemiplegia" and "seizure disorder" (don't accuse me of politacal correctness for not calling it "epilepsy" - keep reading! "Epliepsy" is a term used to describe seizures that occur without any known cause. "Seizure disorder" describes seizures that occur because of a known brain injury, such as a stroke or infection.)

I agree with the earlier poster who said that Marc is confusing political correctness and people first language. The goal of people first language is to put the PERSON before the DISABILITY. Look again at my first sentence... I am NOT the parent of a mentally retarded boy. People first language is not abt changing short (like me) to vertically challenged - that's politically correct. It's abt making people think differently. Do I think that people first language has changed society's view of people? I don't know. Do I hope it helps? Of course. One thing I'm sure of is that it hurts a LOT LESS to hear my son referred to as a "boy with mental retardation," instead of a "mentally retarded boy."

Marc also seems to misunderstand "developmentally disabled." "Developmentally disabled" is an umbrella term used to describe a whole host of issues. "Mental retardation" has a specific definition, as do "autism" and "Down Syndrome". Use of the term "development disabilities" covers all of them plus people whose specific disability has not been defined.

Two final comments for those of you who think this is just semantics... what do you call indigenous peoples? People of African descent? Do you use the terms you grew up using? Or what is considered socially acceptable now? Why should the term you use for other segments of the population be any different? Language is a changing thing - that's good, NOT bad.

And most importantly, unless you can wear the "been there, done that" tee shirt of a parent, family member or close friend to a person with a disability, you need to respect OUR DECISIONS about what language we use to describe members of OUR COMMUNITY. (In case you're wondering, people without disabilities are not "normal" they are "typical".)

Posted by: Mom to boy w mental retardation | June 15, 2006 10:52 AM

I'm sorry, but trying to make yourself feel better about a situation by dictating that others use more pleasant euphemisms makes you look petty.

Signed,
Jen
Who is fat, not weight challenged, pleasantly plump, nor fluffy.

Posted by: Jennifer | June 15, 2006 10:54 AM

Jen,
Just because you don't respect yourself doesn't mean that others won't. And you're right, racial minorities are so petty for taking issue with the terms the KKK uses. They should just let it go and get over it.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 11:00 AM

I am always a bit surprised at the resistance to change of any sort. While there are certainly larger issues, both political and social, that face our governments and us individually, it would seem to me that this is a simple issue of respect.

As isangeles pointed out, respect doesn't come from a name-change, but it might just make someone feel better. While we may be very short, very tall, very bald or very fat, we prefer not to be referred to as such. Often people with disabilities are defined by their diagnosis - this has to be frustrating and painful for them, their families and the professionals who serve them.

While I do not believe that current terms should be mandated nor do I do find the charge of bigotry warranted, I do think people with disabilities are marginalized. If simply changing our vocabulary can make others feel better and less stigmatized, "politically correct" or not, it seems worthwhile.

Posted by: justathought | June 15, 2006 11:02 AM

Jen,

You got it right. Well put.

An Dliodoir,

Racial minorities are perfectly comfortable calling each other the same terms that the KKK uses. They make records using the terms. They use the terms on television. What right have they to deny others the same privilege? The country was founded on free speech.

Posted by: First Amendment | June 15, 2006 11:06 AM

Jen and 1st Ammendment,

Until you've been told by a neonatologist in a hospital NICU that your 2 day old son will be a "vegetable" - HIS WORD - you have no idea how painful language can be. If wanting people to show each other the respect that they are due, is petty than I'm happy to call myself petty.

Posted by: Mom of boy with mental retardation | June 15, 2006 11:14 AM

First Amendment,
The question is not whether people CAN use these terms, of course they can, I have acknowledged as much above. The issue is whether people SHOULD use certain terms in public discourse. If Fisher wants to be a bigot, our great Constitution gives him the freedom to do so. But should he be allowed to propogate his bigotry through this public forum?

And though certain rappers and other segments of the african-american community use the n-word with reckless abandon, this same debate rages among african-americans as to whether it is appropriate. Again, just because people can and do use certain words, it doesn't make it right.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 11:14 AM

For those who claim to speak for the "community" of disabled/retarded, you don't represent everyone, so please don't claim to do so. (And the whole "if you haven't been a parent/relative" stuff is hogwash anyway.)

I have a relative. Period. It so happens that that person happens to be severely mentally and physically disabled. So what? That's not his/her identity. (apologies for being vague, but I dislike divulging personal details).

I see no problem with the phrase "mental retardation" any more than senile or Alzheimer's or paraplegic. It is descriptive. It's a fact. Deal with it. My real problem with the labelling is that it still shunts people with disabilities or a different skin color or ancestry or religion into a separate, abnormal category (or atypical, or whatever - normal and typical are the same).

So, ditch the labels completely, unless medically necessary in a situation. Mainstream. Until society sees the disabled/retarded/whatever as people - without silly qualification as people with [blanks], changing the euphemism every few years does nothing. IMHO, the obsession with labels hurts more than it helps, since it emphasizes the disability. Same with "special education". But then, this is my opinion, and I am not trying to force society to accept it as standard.

As for those who keep raising the question of "What do you call [ethnic etc] groups?", the answer is, well, maybe that's why we still have a problem with racism and bigotry.

Posted by: isangeles | June 15, 2006 11:17 AM

Every person who is different in any way knows how painful language can be. It doesn't change the reality of the situation, though. I'm fat. I'd rather not be called a cow, a whale, etc., and it hurts when I'm occasionally called a name. I'm not lobbying to make sure that fat people are called differently sized because no matter what I'm called, I am fat. It's not all I am, certainly, but it is an adjective that fits my situation.

Calling someone a disabled person does not insinuate that the person is nothing but that. I'd rather use the quick term disabled than to say, that guy over there who can't walk or differently abled or any of the other feel good terms people advocate.

People should try to protect the feelings of others, but people shouldn't have to carry a thesaurus of today's acceptable phrases, because god knows that tomorrow's acceptable phrases will be different and today's will be offensive.

Posted by: Jennifer | June 15, 2006 11:22 AM

Mom of Boy...

Are there other words that would have made it less painful? The pain was not caused by the word vegetable but by the reality that it represented. If he had used different words, it would not have changed the reality.

An Di...

And, who gets to determine which words we "should" use? Why not the speaker? Why must the listener be allowed to dictate? I submit we would all hear more if we spent less time telling others which words we are willing to hear and which we are not.

Posted by: First Amendment | June 15, 2006 11:24 AM

Good for you, Marc, for not bowing to the pressure from the touchy feely uptight PC police. The people who are calling you a bigot are "common-sense challenged."

Posted by: BLN | June 15, 2006 11:32 AM

You know it's sad how much some posters here, including Fisher, seem to revel in the suffering of others. It doesn't matter to you that what you say causes pain. Is it PC to not want to be hurt? Throughout history there have been groups who refused to respect others in the words they chose, the Nazis, the KKK, Stalinists, Maoists. . . . They purposefully minimized individuals by using generalizations and slurs to dehumanize a disfavored group.

I submit that the same is going on here, that some people don't want to view the developmentally disabled as people and it is SO much easier to relate to them in the context of an pithy epithet.

Most of you don't have to relate to the developmentally disabled in any context. They are a vauge reality that you feel fortunate to avoid. Well some of us do deal with that reality every day. My reality has a name and a soul and a smile and a laugh and a hug for me every day when I walk in the door. There are no adjectives in any language that could adequatelyd describe the love and respect I have for him. He is mentally retarded but he is a person that goes out of his way to show respect love and kindness to others. In that regard he is far more advanced than Mr. Fisher and his supporters here.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 11:44 AM

Yes, GOOD for you Marc!

Newspaper writing calls for a particular style -- as short and concise as possible.

Legal briefs, romance fiction, poetry, VCR instructions and recipes all have their own, separate conventions.

The Post, the AP and others have valid, professional reasons -- well thought-through -- for the styles and terms that they use.

Following the same logic as previous posters, perhaps people who aren't journalists can't *truly* understand Marc's position on this issue...

Posted by: ex-journo | June 15, 2006 11:46 AM

An Di...

The harm which was done by "Nazis, the KKK, Stalinists, Maoists" was not their words but their deeds. Get real.

Posted by: First Amendment | June 15, 2006 11:48 AM

There seem to be two separate discussions here. One is about choosing new, "softer" terms to describe status (e.g., developmentally delayed v. retarded). The other is the whole "people first" issue (people with disabilities v. the disabled).

I think it's fair to point out that there are few other areas of description that receive such deference. The neighbor I past on the sidewalk this morning (with a terrible cough) was properly called a "sick, older Italian," not a person whose ancestors came from Italy who has acheived a more advanced age and is currently experiencing a decrease from her usual state of health.

Posted by: people or words | June 15, 2006 11:50 AM

Whatever happened to "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?"

Posted by: Schoolboy | June 15, 2006 11:50 AM

An Di... wrote "He is mentally retarded ..."

How is your use of "mentally retarded" different from Fisher's? After all, it is for saying "on the horrific treatment of the mentally retarded in this city" that he got into trouble and is being criticized here. His critics want him to drop the word entirely. If you are opposing Fisher, shouldn't you be saying "he is a person with a mental disability"? Or is this a double standard? Why is it hurtful when he uses the term, but not when you do?

By the way, thanks for generalizing about Fisher's supporters.

Posted by: isangeles | June 15, 2006 11:53 AM

First Amendment,
Yeah, they started right in with the killing. It wasn't preceded by decades of marginalization and dehumanization through speech.

You don't think it can happen here? Well it's already started. An article in this paper a few months ago reported that the percentage of the population born with developmental disabilities is steadily declining. You know why? Because they're being killed before they're born.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 11:53 AM

Godwin's Law (also Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies) is, in Internet culture, an adage originated in 1990 by Mike Godwin that states:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%.

This adage was formulated because many people compare anyone and anything they mildly dislike with Hitler. There is a tradition in many Usenet newsgroups that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically "lost" whatever debate was in progress.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_Law

Posted by: Godwin Fan | June 15, 2006 11:55 AM

The wonderful thing about the English language is that there is no Academy to tell us how we may or may not use it. Over time, our language just changes, Washington Post editorial policy or no. I suggest it is best if the paper just tries to keep up. And good luck to you with that. BTW, it seems to me (and most Americans, so far) that there are differences between fey terms like "differently abled" and a political demand from people with intellectual disabilities that they be recognized as persons. Calling a class of people "the mentally retarded" is dehumanizing, and people with intellectual disabilites have been subject to a long history of shameful treatment in these United States.

BTW, most states have changed their department names to a version of developmental disabilties; last year, this President changed the President's Committee on Mental Retardation to the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabiltieis; AAMR last week voted to change its name to the American ASsociation for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilties; and in my exerience, most corporations and foundations would not dream of using the term "mental retardation." Just being conservative with language doesn't make you right -- especially with a language that eveolves as quickly as ours does. (It makes you formerly right. Or French.)

Posted by: SDS, mother of a son with disabilities and two without | June 15, 2006 11:56 AM

I can understand a journalist's need for concise language and brevity. But when a journalist uses language that a sizable number of people consider outdated, as in Marc's otherwise excellent story on St. Elizabeth's, any appreciation that I might have for his skill in clear communication is overcome by what I consider intellectual laziness.

Posted by: dgb | June 15, 2006 11:58 AM

An Dli...

And how is the decline of developmentally disabled people related to whether they're termed retards, developmentally disabled, or different? It seems that as we've become more politically correct more of them are being killed through abortions, no?

Posted by: First Amendment | June 15, 2006 11:58 AM

The last line of the column was uncalled for and weakens the author's credibility.

Posted by: Dupont | June 15, 2006 11:58 AM

My son is unable to discern "person with a disability" from "mentally retarded" but I am,and I resent your arrogant insistance in labeling my beautiful son "mentally retarded" because to say "someone with down syndrome" is too wordy. Apparently you have minimal contact with people with Down Syndrome or other similar disabilities. I suggest you drop in at one of the work or day care centers out in Fairfax County and meet some of the "mentally retarded" and see if you can't bring yourself to relabel them as people with a disability instead of seeing them only as "being" that particular disability. Good luck with your own developmental disability, sir.

Posted by: Another father of a son with DS | June 15, 2006 11:59 AM

I work with autistic kids so I know first hand the importance of using PC comments when talking to parents. I can't help but feel that sometimes we go to far in the attempt to be politically correct. I wouldn't be surprised if in the not too distant future mentally retarded was changed to "special children that have taken a different path on the road of childhood developement."

Posted by: discreet | June 15, 2006 12:01 PM

isangeles,
"How is your use of "mentally retarded" different from Fisher's?"

First, I never took exception to Fisher's original use of the word. I liked his article. It was today's blog that I found inappropriate. Mentally retarded is a medical diagnosis and used in that context it is appropriate. But that wasn't good enough for Herr Fisher, he had to expand on this view of certain other terms in referring to the "advocates for the retarded" and in generally belittling those who ask for respect.

But his life is too busy and his style and usage manual is so limiting that he and his supporters (hereinafter "advocates for the retarded"), must use retarded instead of developmentally disabled.

Y'all want to feel good about hurting others, then keep your bigotry behind closed doors where it belongs. If you insist on being disrespectful in public, you will be confronted.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 12:04 PM

First Amendment wrote: "It seems that as we've become more politically correct more of them are being killed through abortions, no?"

Um, who said abortion was politically correct? It certainly wasn't me.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 12:08 PM

An Dliodoir: How would you have responded to Plain Speaker if he had chosen to illustrate his point with the Deaf, instead?

Posted by: Mark | June 15, 2006 12:13 PM

About "deaf." As far as I know it would be the same as "blind," in that it is not, in and of itself, offensive. Not having any deaf friends or acquaintences, however, I could be wrong.

How about "dumb?" Tecnically it means an inability to speak? Guess what, you don't hear that one in polite society in reference to the speech impaired anymore, do you?

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 12:20 PM

Well, if we really want to play with the meaning of words....

Retarded means slowed or delayed. Disabled means unable or unfit.

Do you want a person who is mentally slowed, or mentally unable or incapable? Personally, I want neither. When you think about what the words mean, they are all offensive. It's just that the whitewashing has faded on one but not the other.

Replacing one set of words with another (inapt) set doesn't change anything. It will mollify those with tender sensibilities for a few years, until those new words have become insults. And then they will have to be replaced. That's why a lot of this is PC. Moreover, it's a waste of time, when that energy and drive could go into something more productive.

And please, let's ditch the Nazi references, the generalizations, abuse, and veiled threats. And the assumptions that anyone who disagrees is a bigot or has no experience with disabled or mentally retarded persons.

Posted by: isangeles | June 15, 2006 12:27 PM

A lot of you, Marc included, seem to be missing the point: the point of "people first" language is to make folks think of those with disabilities as *people* first. While I'm sure that many posters on this blog, and likely Marc himself, already do, the sad truth is that there are many people who think of folks with disabilities as nothing more than their disabilities.

By using the wording, "people/person with [blank]," you force readers and listeners to see the word "people" or "person" first, and that becomes the defining description. On the other hand, the term, "mentally retarded," can and often does get used as a defining description for whatever person or group that's being discussed. People first is not, as some have implied, PC language change - it's an attempt to change viewpoints as well.

A person can hold politically incorrect viewpoints and still communicate civility and respect for others. I don't like welfare, I firmly believe that war is sometimes the answer, and I'm a pro-market libertarian - that does not mean I call those who disagree with me lazy, naive or pink. They're people who have different viewpoints and opinions. See? People first easy.

Posted by: Missing the point | June 15, 2006 12:28 PM

Yuk yuk. YUCK. Neither funny nor intelligent.
Retarded intellect? Now I understand your problem.

Posted by: Betsy Broughton | June 15, 2006 12:28 PM

"Do you want a person who is mentally slowed, or mentally unable or incapable? Personally, I want neither."

Sorry, I just realized that might come off as different than what I meant. What I meant was, both constructions are horrible and should not be used. I certainly did NOT (and do not) mean that I don't like or would not want a person who is disabled. The animus is against the words, not the people.

Posted by: isangeles | June 15, 2006 12:30 PM

"It seems that as we've become more politically correct more of them are being killed through abortions, no?"

. . . or it might have something to do with the fact that the diagnostic standards for mental retardation changed in 1977 (lowering the upper IQ limit from 85 to 70), and with the fact that doctors, teachers and others have become better at telling the difference between mental retardation, autism, ADD/ADHD, etc.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2006 12:34 PM

isangeles wrote: "assumptions that anyone who disagrees is a bigot"

You're right, no one's a bigot, it's all relative, we're all right and we should just respect the difference of opinion. Thus, the opinions of racists are as morally valid as those of Mother Theresa. The warm blanket of moral relativism will make us all feel better. . . .

If you purposefully use language you know to be offensive, you're a bigot. Fisher did ergo he is.

You also wrote: "Replacing one set of words with another (inapt) set doesn't change anything."

No! Really?!?!?! Of course it doesn't change anything and no one suggested otherwise. It's about respect for the individual NOT about a diagnosis. So if I met Fisher in public I could call him a fat-a$$ed ignoramous or I could conform to civil convention and The words I choose don't change the fact that he's an idiot but it wouldn't be right to refer to him as such in public.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 12:41 PM

Why have so many complained about the last paragraph in Marc's post? I thought it was hilarious. It, in and of itself, justified reading everything above it. It was the perfect punchline. Can some of the objectors help me to understand why I'm wrong?

Posted by: What am I missing? | June 15, 2006 12:50 PM

An Dl.. wrote "You also wrote: "Replacing one set of words with another (inapt) set doesn't change anything."

No! Really?!?!?! Of course it doesn't change anything and no one suggested otherwise. It's about respect for the individual NOT about a diagnosis."

Please read my posts carefully and don't twist my words. A number of posters have argued that a change in terminology will lead to a change in the perception of the disabled/retarded, that is, that more respectful words will generate real respect. My point is, that changing the words will not necessarily create a change in societal views. We still have racism, despite the change from N* and colored people to Negro to African American. (Yes, there has been improvement, but I do not believe that this can be attributed to language.) Use of a different term does not equate to respect or an atmosphere of respect. In terms of political correctness, the change could be seen as fear rather than respect. My concern here and has been for what is best for disabled/retarded people individually and as a whole, and for their seamless integration into a society that doesn't care about how people are different, not for a momentary warm-fuzzy.

If this makes me a bigot, well, so be it.

Posted by: isangeles | June 15, 2006 12:54 PM

"People first is not, as some have implied, PC language change - it's an attempt to change viewpoints as well."

It's not the reporter's job to change viewpoints.

If parents/friends/supporters want to take on that advocacy role by using different language, good for them.

Posted by: ex-journo | June 15, 2006 12:59 PM

"If this makes me a bigot, well, so be it."

Straight from the horses mouth. . .or was it your a$$? Hey! Being purposefully disrespectful is fun!

"changing the words will not necessarily create a change in societal views."

No? Well it's certainly part of the process. Something tells me we wouldn't have an african-american Secretary of State if it was still socially acceptable to call her a n****r in public. Ya think?

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 1:04 PM

Nazism? It is not surprising to see people of great intelligence (An Dliodoir would seem to be amongst them) finding it an easy leap from words meant to alienate and separate out those who are "different" written by the man who was Washington Post's bureau chief in Bonn and Berlin, who often writes about the German people and the days of Hitler.

Ron Rosenbaum once said that many scholars had gotten "too close to the Fuehrer, so close that the magnitude of his evil became a distorting lens that makes any human perspective impossible. So close that the temptation, the inevitable tendency, is to begin looking at all history in terms of how it led to Hitler and the death camps. And a concomitant temptation . . . to view all evil in relation to Hitler's evil." How do I know this? Because I read it in an article...written by Marc Fisher.

It seems the internet mystery of 9 degrees to Hitler could be heralded back to Mr. Fisher as well. Certainly Norman Finkelstein, who once won a retraction by Mr. Fisher, could give lessons in the art of the "vocabulary of discourse".

In any event, back to the subject at hand.
Is it really such a stretch to see that words and actions are related? Is it also such a stretch to see a connection to the current day eugenics that are "ridding the world of imperfection" by aborting (in the late term) those amongst us who would be "less than perfect"?

Words matter. Respect matters. If a man is given the opportunity to become educated, then chooses to not use that education, then he alone is to blame for the fallout.

It is a joke to suggest that the above column was in any way written to preserve space by choosing the easiest word available. The entire column was written as a nanee-nanee-boo-boo in your face denial of respect to those who would dare demand it of him. To insinuate that those of us out here raising children with developmental disabilities are whiners may make you feel better about your own disregard for intellectual honesty. I can assure you, I have yet to see the parent of a child with a disability who was anything close to whiny. Most of them are intelligent, focused, aware, and deeply grateful for the opportunity to know what life is really about. One of those things I have learned is that being right might feel good, but being kind feels even better.

There is a saying that goes "everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten". Indeed, it is too bad that we forget those lessons we learned back then. If today's children are any indication, they have learned respect, something Mr. Fisher could well use to learn.

PS Mr, Fisher, here's hoping we will never be reminded of your words today within the confines of your own life..."cancer woman" and "leukemia kid" sound so harsh. Rest assured, when you are on the receiving end of the anononymity and randomness of illness or disability, (and life is funny like that) we will not forget that your people are "people first".

Posted by: wow | June 15, 2006 1:31 PM

ex-journo said: "It's not the reporter's job to change viewpoints."

You're absolutely right. When it comes to reporting facts in news stories, there should be no bias, or as little as humanly possible.

But in this case, Marc is POSTING IN A BLOG. It's not the same thing as reporting the straight facts in the most concise manner. He's basically making op-ed pieces, intermixed with day-in-the-life stories (I recall the one about hiring a contractor and not answering the door). He is not simply reporting news; he's offering commentary, and asking for readers to post their commentary.

If he were trying to sway opinions in what was supposed to be a news story, I'd take issue. But it's a blog. That's a whole different beast, and the fact that reporters should report news and not sway opinion does not mean anything in this particular form of communication.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2006 1:41 PM

"People first language" advocates don't really know want anyone to think of people as people first. They just want people to think of THEIR children first. Everyone else, step aside. This movement is just the latest in a string of "who's the latest victim" of our society - somehow all adversities are someone else's fault. Look, 99% of Americans wouldn't hesitate to do all they could to help every person they could become whole. But not using medically accurate terminology in order to tiptoe around the truth is aiding and abetting those who have their heads in the sand and permitting a worse phenomenon called "denial." The "people first language" advocates are harming the progress that is being made medically by diverting attention away from the difficulties faced by those with mental, emotional, physicial, psychological and societal disorders and their families. Instead, they worry about language.

Posted by: Maggie | June 15, 2006 1:48 PM

Maggie says: ""People first language" advocates don't really know want anyone to think of people as people first. They just want people to think of THEIR children first. Everyone else, step aside."

Ma'am, I don't have kids, don't know anyone with disabilities, am without disabilities myself - and I'm a people-first advocate. I'm not a pushover, I'm not people-first because I was bashed over the head with the idea, or anything like that. I heard the wording a couple of times and thought (for myself, no less) that it was better than saying "mentally retarded" or whatever. It's a better descriptor, in my opinion.

Posted by: Childfree and tolerant | June 15, 2006 1:58 PM

Re: 12:50 pm ("What Am I Missing").

The problem with Marc's last paragraph is that people in the deceased community prefer the term "metaphysically challenged."

Posted by: Tom T. | June 15, 2006 1:59 PM

Tom T.--

Thanks! I feel so dense. And Marc -- what an insensitive clod, not to mention a bigot and an a$$h0le.

Posted by: What am I missing? | June 15, 2006 2:02 PM

I not sure, but did he not argue for changing Indian mascot names. If that is the case then I would say his stance here is pure hyprocrisy. But if he did say that the names should stay, then his article was fairly reasonable except for his cheap shot at humor at the end.

Posted by: Niceday | June 15, 2006 2:02 PM

Hey Maggie, I've got some people first language for ya. . .you're an idiot and that screed you just posted is internally inconsistant and confusing. Anyway, such an effort would be wasted so I'll just reduce it to terms you can understand. . you. . .are. . .an. . .idiot.

Let me point out that you were the first person to use the term "victim." No one above claimed respect for only their child. No one above blamed another for developmental disability. This debate isn't about "medically accurate terminology."

Something tells me you didn't actually read (or, more likely, understand) the substance of the debate. Perhaps you came to this discussion with an agenda and just regurgitated tired talking points you heard some sunday morning pundit spew as you chowed down on your Alpo?

I'm tellin' ya folks, not respecting others and being offensive is really liberating. I'm not gonna let those PC nazis tell me how to speak gosh darn it!

Posted by: An Dliodoir | June 15, 2006 2:05 PM

Marc, twenty-five years ago I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. That means that several times a day since then I have had to prick my finger to check my blood glucose level, and several times a day take insulin, first by injection, more recently using an insulin pump. Diabetes is a big part of my life, but a diabetic is not the only thing that I am. I am also a systems analyst, parent, home owner, Democrat, etc., etc. There is still enough prejudice in our society so that many people do not see beyond a disabled or chronically ill person's medical condition. Using language that implies that a person is more than his or her medical condition helps move us all past that prejudice. Calling me a diabetic implies that diabetes is my primary identity. Calling me a person with diabetes implies that diabetes is only part of my identity.

Posted by: Person with diabetes | June 15, 2006 2:09 PM

Maggie, I will thank you not to speak for who I am or what my motivation is. I will also thank you for keeping your opinions about who is and is not "whole" to yourself. My child is as whole and complete a human being as any I have ever known. She has more in her genetic makeup than you or I do, as a matter of fact.

People first language is practiced by those who respect people for who and what they are. I have never seen it come with boundaries. In fact, I have experienced first hand the expansion of the mind and heart that comes with loving someone unconditionally. Rather than making me bitter or angry, as I may have thought before my child was born, it has opened my heart to the world. I do not love only those who are "perfect" now. I can even care about people like you and Mr. Fisher, who it seems quite obvious do not care about anyone but themselves.

I challenge you and anyone else who doubts that these ARE people first to click on the following link and see for yourselves who you are culling and picking and choosing with your language.

http://www.onetruemedia.com/shared?p=92b007767e44d89c93756&skin_id=0&utm_source=otm&utm_medium=email

Posted by: wow | June 15, 2006 2:11 PM

To 1st Amendment:

You asked "Are there other words that would have made it less painful? The pain was not caused by the word vegetable but by the reality that it represented. If he had used different words, it would not have changed the reality."

No, actually, the pain was caused by the word "vegetable". We were also so shocked by what he said, we didn't hear half of what followed.

If he had said that he didn't know what the future held for our son but that many children who lived through a bout with meningitis were severely disabled (using the word "disabled" here would have conveyed the possibilities for both physical and cognitive issues), we would have been able to process what he said without being cut by the word "vegetable".

No, it wouldn't have changed the reality but what did he accomplish by choosing that word? Perhaps he could have soothed us by using less caustic language. We certainly wouldn't have recalled exactly what he said 11 years later but maybe we would have remembered him as a caring dr who did the best he could to save our son and support us, rather then as a thoughtless, incompetent jerk. What he really was and how we remember him may well be two different things but we're talking abt the effect that language has on the listener, not what makes a good dr.

Now, I certainly agree with your point that one of the wonderful things abt our country is that people are ALLOWED to say things the way they want to say them. What I'm advocating is that people think abt how what they say affects others and CHOOSE to use words that make their point without being hurtful.

We teach our children this (it's not acceptable for my 5 yo to shout "I hate you poo poo head" because I've asked him to put his Legos away and come for dinner). Why shouldn't adults be expected to show the same respect?

Posted by: Mom of boy with mental retardation | June 15, 2006 2:13 PM

This argument was myopic. I don't recall seeing the following terms used in the Post: "the blacks"; "the gays". I am typically opposed to the push for political correctness; however, some sense of equity (or at a minimum some tact) should be in order. Go on using the terminology (I could care less), but don't try to defend it with such logically-challenged rubbish.

Posted by: NavinRJohnson | June 15, 2006 2:22 PM

Marc Fisher misses an obvious point, that "retarded" has also moved on to mean something else. I usually reserve it to refer to pretentious, vapid, illogical, newspaper columnists who cannot write very well: e.g. Marc Fisher is "retarded".
Developmentally disabled people and their families have a right to be angry about lumped in the same group as arrogant, minor journalists.

The true tragedy of this blog is that it has given Marc Fisher the ability to express his worthless opinions about even more topics that he barely understands. Amazingly, this has also allowed Fisher to become even more useless, even measured against journalists. He cannot even manage to be entertaining. Please let the cranks outside Metro stations shouting whatever naive complaints they have with society that there is apparently a future for them in journalism.

Fisher, just because you have an opinion, and have been given a powerful medium for expressing it, does not mean that you should.

Posted by: preslopsky | June 15, 2006 2:29 PM

Y'all are "wicked" developmental.

Posted by: matt | June 15, 2006 2:35 PM

Some ungenerous folks think that undocumented workers are differently abled. They're just progressively-challenged.

Posted by: matt | June 15, 2006 2:44 PM

Matt, you might potentially have a job as a stand up comedian...in an elementary school. Wicked.

Posted by: wow | June 15, 2006 2:52 PM

"If you purposefully use language you know to be offensive, you're a bigot. Fisher did ergo he is."

But this language ISN'T offensive to all. In fact, there have been several posts on this board by disabled, "people with XXX", crippled, -WHATEVER you want to be called- people who have said that they DO NOT mind many of the labels being branded as "biggoted."
Moreover, it is a sure bet that any label is going to offend someone, somewhere.
Anyway, shouldn't the focus be on ensuring acceptance and tolerance of ALL people (disabled . . . or not) and less on the labels and who MIGHT be offended? I think so.

And to anyone bringing up the most extreme ideas . . . comparisons to Nazis . . . get a life. That is just intellectual laziness. If you have a point, make it. Don't be a demagogue.

Posted by: JS | June 15, 2006 2:55 PM

What perplexes me about this stream is that some of those who insist most strongly on "people first" language, or whatever they call it, use some of the vilest insults to describe others, particularly poor Marc Fisher. What's that about "practice what you preach?"

Posted by: Hypocrisy? | June 15, 2006 3:04 PM

Your logic doesn't work, Mr. Fisher. Just because it's the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, that doesn't mean that today African Americans like to be called "colored people" or "coloreds".

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2006 3:32 PM

i'm curious as to why mark hasn't responded to these comments. often other blog-leaders will comment to help redefine or redirect the discussion, but he has made no attempt to clarify his statement or even apologize (should that be his course of action). i wonder if his choice of words has gotten him in trouble with mommy and daddy post.

Posted by: where's mark | June 15, 2006 4:04 PM

Referring to people by what they call themselves: politically correct or just civil?

Posted by: JoanKennedy | June 15, 2006 4:12 PM

The problem, JoanKennedy, is that there is no consensus. Plenty of people in wheelchairs will call themselves disabled or handicapped, whereas other people in wheelchairs want to be called, "person who happens to be in a wheelchair." People shouldn't have to watch everything they say because someone, somewhere will be offended by it.

Thicker skins come in handy.

Posted by: Joyce | June 15, 2006 4:19 PM

The people-first language movement isn't about political correctness; it's about respect.

There are many words that we all choose NOT to use every day, simply because those words will offend some people.

Why do we not use the n-word? Well, because we know it makes people angry. So we choose not to use it (I hope). We could go around using it all day long, but there would be repurcussions (and rightly so).

But no one is arguing that the n-word should be made illegal. That would be censorship and it would be wrong.

I don't understand why people with disabilities seem to be the only group that is not afforded the courtesy of choosing the label used to describe them.

Posted by: Chris | June 15, 2006 4:21 PM

I like salt. Salt is good, esp. on fries. But not on an open wound.

Why go out of your way to be rude to people who don't deserve it? There's no good can come of that.

I think some folks, Mark included, would rather be funny than right, and sometimes rationalize it by pleading "telling it like it is." Well, at least he's getting paid for it. He has a deadline. What's our excuse?

Posted by: Tahrlis | June 15, 2006 4:24 PM

Honestly, I really don't get this: people (many, many) who call for others to have "thicker skins" _because it hurts their feelings to be called insensitive_ (not to pick on one poster, it's just a representative expression) -- wth?

Posted by: Tahrlis | June 15, 2006 4:28 PM

Sometimes, I don't want to call folks what they would like to be called, because they're wrong, and they're trying to manipulate opinion or sympathy to bad ends.

We all know this. "Ethically-challenged" is *never* used un-ironically. They're crooks.

So when I feel like "telling it like it is," my motivation matters, and IS open to question. I should be willing to defend it, on a level appropriate to the forum I chose to be in.

Posted by: Tahrlis | June 15, 2006 4:38 PM

The evolution of terms that are no longer acceptable continues.

At some point in the late 1970's, in the area of public education, parents looked around and saw where other children had "alphabet soup" descriptors; ADH, LD, G&T, etc. Amazingly, parents bucked at having their children labeled as "normal."

That term became one that reversed its meaning and being described as "normal" was a curse.

If you pointed to your child and told a friend that he/she was "normal," they would often take offense from the converse (abnormal), whether that term was used.

If "normal" is a negative branding, would one prefer "abnormal"?

Is there a safe descriptive term, one that can weather the decades?

Don't we continue to use that two-word French phrase to describe the individual that can play the concert piano without ever taking a lesson, or process long number division/multiplication without a calculator?

Posted by: Silence DoGood | June 15, 2006 4:41 PM

When I say get a thicker skin, it isn't because I'm offended by anyone's opinion of my opinion. It's because people often choose to be offended, or feign offense when it is clear that no offense was intended. Making a big deal over a term makes a big deal of the disability.

Posted by: Joyce | June 15, 2006 4:46 PM

Terseness is usually better, but not when it's less clear, or inaccurate. When the "less cumbersome" term (trying to avoid offense *can* get really cumbersome) is also a slang term for something nasty, or a code word for some meme the writer (presumably) doesn't intend, you're using the wrong term.

Posted by: Tahrlis (A-gain!) | June 15, 2006 4:48 PM

i recommend people read george orwell's 1984 to understand the use of words and how they can be used to obsure or help an issue. don't deny that language can hurt just as much as sticks & stones. the victims of bullying tell us otherwise. talk to men who were called "boy", a perfectly innocent word, but in the context it was used not so innocent. langauge does convey meaning like it or not.

Posted by: quark | June 15, 2006 4:51 PM

There is a consensus, once the term that had described a condition creeps into general use to disparage people who don't have it. When this happens, the group with the condition is definitively if unintentionally included in with the slur, as in, "you belong with that sorry group." People who mean no ill will might be surprised at the offense taken when they lightly refer to something or someone as retarded, or ghetto, or lame. But once you know, isn't it past time to stop with the term for all uses? As a writer, Marc Fisher would necessarily have spent some time researching the community that speaks for the people with the condition. Of course he knows what those most closely involved call people with developmental delays. It's not all that wordy, and if that's what the parents and caregivers and lobbyists call it, why not get on the train?

Posted by: JoanKennedy | June 15, 2006 4:56 PM

Mr. Fisher --

This is the first time I've read your blog, and if today's entry is a fair sample, likely to be the last. Your comments are both disingenuous and condescending, which is quite a combination.

Without acknowledging it, you have conflated two separate arguments. One of the arguments is that, for various cultural and political reasons, rather than refer to someone who is mentally retarded as "mentally retarded" or as "retarded," one should refer to that person as a person with mental retardation.

The second argument -- one which was not part of the discussion, but which you added to it, presumably because you found it easier to deal with than the first argument -- is that it would be better, again for cultural and political reasons, not to refer to someone with a disability as being disabled at all, but rather as being "differently abled." (Like you (and many of the other commenters), I find this argument to be silly. I'm disinclined, however, to pursue it. After all, my point is that you missed the point by focussing on this argument, and not the other one.)

I assume that, in writing your comments, you knew full well that you were changing ground, and that's why I say your comments were disingenuous. (If you didn't realize that you were responding to an argument that hadn't been made, then your thinking lacks rigor. If that's too wordy, I suppose I could just say you're a moron.)

Others have commented on the condescending asects of your comments, and I don't think I need to add anything.

Ultimately, of course, ad hominem attacks are of little value, and I'd rather focus on the merits of the issue -- merits which you previously dodged (even if you did it unwittingly).

As I understand your position, it is your job to be as clear and plain spoken as possible, to avoid wordiness, and to avoid all politically loaded terms. To that end, you (and, you seem to imply, the Post more generally) have decided that referring to "people with mental retardation" is politically loaded, but that referring to "the mentally retarded" is not politically loaded. I'd be interested to know how you made this judgment.

I suspect that the answer is that you never really considered the question before you used the term in your blog. I suspect that your statements today are simply an after-the-fact justification for your choice of words. If, on the other hand, you or the Post have actually considered this issue explicitly, I truly would be fascinated to know how you came to the judgment that "the mentally retarded" is somehow less politically charged than "people with mental retardation."

Did you consider the even less wordy choice? One that is even clearer and more plain spoken? Did you consider simply referring to "retards"? Did you decide that that was insensitive? Offensive? Politically incorrect?

Did you eschew "retards" for "the mentally retarded"? How did you decide that "the mentally retarded" was acceptable when "retards" was not? Is the former sufficiently less offensive than the latter to justify being wordier? What is that conclusion based on? Did you do some research on this issue to discover which terms were offensive and which were not? Or to rank terms according to their degree of insensitivity?

I assume the answer to all of these questions is that no, you didn't do any research, and you don't really have any basis for using "the mentally retarded" instead of "retards" other than your own individual sense of what's "acceptable."

Surely you will agree that all terms, to one degree or another, may be considered by some (or many) to be insensitive, offensive, politically charged, or the like. And surely you do not mean to suggest that you are somehow able to rise above the passions and interests that afflict all of the rest of humanity, such that you have somehow become the arbiter of what terms are and are not "offensive" or "politically loaded," or "politically correct."

It's your blog, of course, and you're certainly entitled to use within it whatever language you like (subject, I expect, to the review of some editor). If you're going to publish it, however, and particularly if you're going to ask for comments, you certainly ought to expect that any choice you make about the language you use may be challenged by those who read it.

When you get those challenges, you might consider responding to them on their merits, and explaining why you chose the words you did.

Here, you didn't do that. You belittled the argument, and responded only by claiming some sort of linguistic or moral high ground -- telling us that you eschew the "people with" construction because other terms are clearer and more plainspoken. That claim does not explain why you used "the mentally retarded" instead of "retards" (or "imbeciles" or "morons" or "idiots" or "the feeble minded," etc. etc.). You are not in possession of some linguistic high ground. You're only in possession of the ground you're standing on. It may or may not turn out to be higher than the ground each of the rest of us is standing on.

It may well be that, upon due consideration, you come to the conclusion that "people with mental retardation" is somehow politically charged in a way that "the mentally retarded" is not. If so, tell us why. Make an argument. Even if you don't respect your readers enough to respond to their comments seriously, have enough respect for your own thinking, or have enough professionalism as a journalist, to examine what you've written and ask yourself if you've really made a considered choice -- and if not, to make one.

Posted by: TMC | June 15, 2006 4:58 PM

Joyce: I agree. Sometimes, people *do* go out of their way to be offended. IMO it happens just as much on the "anti-PC" side if not moreso, but whatever. Folks do that a lot. It bugs me, too.

And I take your point: Sometimes, being noisily offended does have unintended consequences -- seems like every time somebody protests a movie, ticket sales go way up.

But, just for example, I know men who routinely refer to women as "broads" (and worse). I don't think it's innocuous, and I think I should criticize them directly. Social opprobrium is really all we have, ultimately. As SDS pointed out, we don't have an Academy here to let us know which terms are OK and which aren't (and some aren't), so we're all on our own.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2006 5:09 PM

wow, talk about disingenuous. And longwinded.

But the English is good: that's refreshing.

Posted by: Tahrlis (still) | June 15, 2006 5:12 PM

If crippled is such a bad word, why is it in the bible? Not a sermon, just a thought.

Posted by: JC | June 15, 2006 5:15 PM

You know it makes me sad to think that while you all are SOOO busy trying rather ignorantly to PROVE your beliefs that "retarded" people are JUST that.....simply RETARDED and don't deserve anymore than that and should be viewed and labled as such, and NO one should take the time to think of them, much less SPEAK of them in any other way, these VERY same people, you know the "retarded" ones, wouldn't judge you for being who you are, infact they are generally the MOST happy and accepting people I have ever met. They wouldn't even judge Marc for being ignorant to the fact that they do have feelings and are PEOPLE first. In my experience, those that have to DEFEND their ignorant and offensive behaviors by making those less fortune feel bad about themselves and trying to defend themselves by being even more offensive often have deeper issues, and will take it out on anyone they feel threatened and embarrased by.In this case Ignorance is NOT bliss and shouldn't be passed off as acceptable simply for terms of convienience. I think the words used aren't always the issue, the sentiment behind them and the delivery of the words is where the offense and disregard for differences comes into play.Appologies and credibility don't go far when you throw in a sarcastic and/or arrogant tone, IMO!

Posted by: IMO | June 15, 2006 5:18 PM

Umm, JC: it's not. That's just the English translation.

Posted by: T (yes, me) | June 15, 2006 5:18 PM

To Silence Do Good:

You asked "Don't we continue to use that two-word French phrase to describe the individual that can play the concert piano without ever taking a lesson, or process long number division/multiplication without a calculator?"

The current preferred designation for people who used to be called "idiot savants" is now just "savants" or "autistic savants".

Posted by: Mom of boy with severe mental retardation | June 15, 2006 5:34 PM

I too thought it was interesting that some of the people most fiercely advocating for "correct" labeling of the disabled are the rudest. In my family we have the "learning disabled," the "autistic," the "hyperactive," etc.
Although I think the last paragraph of Mr. Fisher's blog entry probably hurt his point with those who oppose him (I thought it was kinda funny), I agree that people-first usage is not common usage and that journalists are not responsible for disability advocacy any more than they are for race advocacy. If you read, you will realize that both "African-American" and "black" are used frequently in this newspaper, although I notice that "black" gets more usage in science/medical articles or in cases where it's meant to offset "white." Both "black" and "African-American" can be offensive to different groups belonging to that race.

Personally, I've found that terms like "person with," "differently-abled," etc. are currently used almost exclusively by two groups. The first group is parents whose lives revolve around disability issues. The second group is people who make goo-goo faces at sensible folks in wheelchairs and talk touchingly about creating "community." Regrettably, their preferred terminology is already the stuff of playground insults, I think in part because it *is* associated with excessive political correctness. People-first terminology was used to insult pretty commonly back in the 90s when I was still in public school, at least in an ironic way. Apart from these uses, I've never heard anyone else write or speak that way. If disability advocates manage to turn it into common usage, more power to them, but right now, it's not.

I also know that there are sizable contingents of deaf people and autistic people who do *not* like the people-first terminology because they say there's nothing insulting or degrading about being deaf or autistic, and that deafness and autism *are* important parts of their identities. Try googling "autistics," for example. Call them "hearing-impaired" or a "person with autism" and you will get called down very angrily. Of course, they neglect the fact that everyone else just tries to use the most common and inoffensive term, and that not everyone spends hours a day sitting around thinking about disability identity. (In analogy, some "black is beautiful" folks are disgusted by the term "African-American.")

If you read British news sources, you will find that, especially in headlines, you *do* find things like "Leukemia girl survives revolutionary operation." I always found it interesting that that's perfectly acceptable usage there.

If you google the term "mentally retarded," every single one of the first ten or fifteen sources that pops up relate to medical care, definitions of mental retardation, the United Nations charter on "Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons," and so on. Only one addresses the use of "mentally retarded" as a pejorative term, and that one, from the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website, says it's a mistake to treat "mentally retarded" as an insult! In other words, it looks like there are plenty of people out there (including in my family) who prefer the term "mentally retarded," or have no problem with it.

Also try googling "fat acceptance," which relates to the desires of many in the "fat community" to prefer the term "fat," which they say is *not* an insult, just a fact.

I am a brunette. Being a brunette is not my entire "identity," but I sure am a brunette. I am also short (vertically-challenged? person with shortness?). I am learning disabled (a term which, in the United States, refers to specific learning disabilities and not overall mental retardation -- confusingly, in Britain they use the term "learning difficulties" to indicate overall disability, I think). My relatives and friends are autistic and mentally retarded.

I mean really, sheesh!

I prefer plain English and common usage.

Posted by: disabled | June 15, 2006 5:51 PM

By the way... though I'm defending Mr. Fisher's blog entry here, which I found straightforward and sensible, I am not a big fan otherwise. So I'm not very biased on that point.

Posted by: disabled | June 15, 2006 5:54 PM

Mentally retarded is a perfectly acceptable and legally defined term based on existing clinical definitions. As recently as Atkins v. Virginia (2002)when the Supreme Court found that the mentally retarded could not be executed for murder the Court declared:

"Clinical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills. Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others' reactions."

Which leads me to ask a somewhat cynical question: are "people first" terms selectively applied when they advantage a group and rejected when they disadvantage a group? For example, would the Supreme Court have ruled similarly if the question was whether "people with development disabilities" could be executed? Clearly in the language above the court is not talking about limited skills in developing but a functional limitation.


Posted by: Constitutionalist | June 15, 2006 5:55 PM

"Thanks! I feel so dense. And Marc -- what an insensitive clod, not to mention a bigot and an a$$h0le."

And a Nazi. Don't forget that.

Posted by: I Liked the Last Paragraph | June 15, 2006 6:22 PM

In 1986, the Supreme Court used "sodomy" to refer to sexual intercourse between gay people, in Bowers v. Hardwick, and I was really taken aback by that. I knew from the beginning when I saw that word used over and over how the opinion would come out (upholding the state statute criminalizing that 'sodomy'). You wouldn't use that term as the only way to describe the activity in question if you thought consexual sex between gay people was acceptable/an expression of love/a positive thing.

In its 2003 opinion overturning Bowers, Lawrence v Texas, the Court used the term 'certain intimate act'/'certain intimate sexual conduct.' In that opinion, the Court (Kennedy) held that a state statute outlawing sex between gay people violated due process.

You can tell so much by the words people choose to describe others what their attitudes are about those people. I see Marc and others on this blog basically saying, "You're [insert whatever derogatory word you like here]. That's what I'm calling you. I get to determine what you're called. Ha ha! Get over it. Because that's just what you ARE."

It's very clear that there is quite a bit of hostility out there toward these people we're seeking to find the 'right' name for.

Posted by: The Words You Choose Say a Lot | June 15, 2006 6:24 PM

To anyone who feels journalists have no responsibility to social advocacy:

What do you think of the Post's op-ed pages? There's certainly a tiny bit of attempted opinion-changing going on over there.

Also, I think a lot of posters here are confused on something. I have a friend who walks with a limp, and I'll call him "damn cripple" jokingly, because I know him and I know he thinks it's funny, and I know that he, personally, prefers terms like crippled, disabled, and handicapped, to "people first" language.

However, in no way would I ever think to use the term "cripples" to describe a group of people with physical handicaps in a piece published in the Washington Post (or any other newspaper or magazine, for that matter). It is too loaded a term to use outside of friendly, private or semi-private conversation, where all the parties involved understand the context, preferences, and personal history. There is a degree of professionalims needed, even in a blog, if that blog is part of the WaPo family, when talking about different groups in society - regardless of what kind of group that would be. For instance, I like being called a chick or a broad, but I also know that many women find it derogatory, so I would expect that most professionals would simply use the term women. If I saw Marc refer to women as chicks or broads, while I wouldn't personally take issue, I'd shake my head and hope the WaPo servers could take the onslaught of incensed commentary.

Marc was professional in the St. E's post, I think. I didn't think he was completely professional here.

It is one thing to use a person's preferred terminology to his or her face, when you know the person and know what that person wants. It is something wholly different when you're writing a piece that will be read by countless people in a professional setting.

All Marc needed to say, if he really needed to say anything, was, "I'm sorry if you were offended, but this is decent middle ground between those who prefer to call themselves by 'archaic' terms and those who prefer the wordier terms." Instead, he made a massive post about how 1) it's not the Post's place to make sweeping changes in the language, 2) word and size limits (that likely don't even exist on a blog), and 3) it's "just" political correctness, and everybody knows that the PC crowd are just so politically incorrect these days. He missed a chance to defend himself without dissing the people who disagreed with him, and just kind of looked like a tool by the end of it all.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2006 6:33 PM

How about I'll use the terminology I want to use, Marc can use the terminology he wants to use, parents of all "special" children everywhere can use the terminology they want to use ... and EVERYBODY will quit whinging about what all the other people are saying.

*You* are the only person responsible for your own happiness. If you don't like what someone is saying, ignore him. Don't give him the power to take away your happiness.

Posted by: a fat brunette | June 15, 2006 6:36 PM

editing replies now? What a...weenie.

Posted by: haha is it too hot for you Marc? | June 15, 2006 6:54 PM

Marc, even if you don't buy into people-first language I would think the Post's Style Guide advises against using terms like "the retarded" to describe a group of people--the Associated Press and New York Times manuals do. I rarely see "the handicapped," etc., used in papers outside podunk America. Language evolves, having nothing to do with political correctness, which most reporters realize.

Style guides also instruct to refrain from euphemisms such as "the physically challenged," since their use implies disability is intrinsically negative, something that needs to be cloaked in a prettier term. Silly euphemisms are being pushed by people who are uncomfortable with disability, not the disability community.

Your slyly embracing the phrase "afflicted with a disability" further reveals your attitude toward disability. Most people with disabilities don't suffer from their conditions or feel afflicted by anything. With millions of Americans having disabilities, and the pool rapidly expanding with aging baby boomers, disability will increasing be seen as a normal state.

Posted by: Zoe | June 15, 2006 7:07 PM

As the mother of a child with Down syndrome I just wanted to point out that words DO matter. But mainly they impact my daughter and how she sees herself, her self confidence is what is a stake here.

Words like "retard" "oh that's so retarded" or even "advocates for the retarded" effect how my child will view her life, her family, her friends and her worth to society.

While my daughter is all of four right now, at some point she will understand that those words are depicting her, either directly or indirectly depending on the circumstances.

At some point in the near future she will understand that society has differing views of her worth as an individual.

This understanding will rock her world, it will shake her to the very core of her soul. I am deeply sadden that there is little I can do to prevent that from happening.

But why would any of you here want to contribute to that?

Call me anything, I have a "thick skin", but why hurt the innocent? Why do that to HER?

Posted by: Just my two cents | June 15, 2006 7:10 PM

My oldest kid has Asperger's Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

No, I don't like it when people call him "autistic", but not because I don't want him to be labeled. It's just too vague.

When his disorder is relevant to the discussion, I call him "an Aspie". Gets the point across, and I see no shame in it. Why should we be ashamed or embarrased? He is what he is. Of course, I don't introduce him as "my son, the Aspie", since I can't see how that is relevant information at a time like that. But yeah, if his wiring is at issue -- well, he is what he is. Same way with his unaffected brother -- when HIS wiring is relevant, we call him NT, or neurotypical. It's a cheeky "diagnosis" that Aspies and their ilk came up with to describe those who are not wired as they are.

Frankly, I see "Aspie" much as gay people see the word "queer" or computer-types see the word "geek". It's a point of pride in what makes you special.

Come to think of it, when we're talking to his barber we say our boy "is a brunet". Maybe we should instead say "he is a person of brown hair"?

Posted by: Kedzie | June 15, 2006 7:54 PM

First of all it is just plain unoriginal to make fun of what you call politically-incorrect terms. Must not have many ideas today.

My son has a developmental disability but he does not have mental retardation. Nonetheless, because he is different he has been called retarded. All you need to do is see a child who has so many struggles to begin with deal with this sort of thing, your own child, before you think language does matter.

How hard is it to say someone has mental retardation? We seem to pull off someone has lung cnacer, someone has a heart attack, rather than, he is lung cancer, he is a heart attack. I think we can handle this.

Agree or disagree, i don't care, but your tone and flip comments make fun of people wiht disabilities and as a mother of a son who doesn't need this crap with everthing else he has to deal with, I have to say, please think of something original and funny for a change and leave vulnerable people alone.

Posted by: Another mom | June 15, 2006 10:39 PM

Marc: I typically enjoy your writing and am able to see the humor where (I think) you intend it to be. This issue of how one should use language to describe people with various limitations is, however, something to which all should give serious thought before hastily using words that will offend. I have spent my life working with people who can't quite make it through life without a bit of extra help because they have mental illness, cognitive impairments, perhaps have had a trauamtic brain injury...so many "diagnoses" can result in life long limitations. The term "mentally retarded" refers to a specific - and outdated - diagnostic category based on IQ scores that fall below 70; strictly speaking, that's all it really means. We all know that the word "retarded" has been and is frequently used in both a humorous and derogatory vein and not only by kids on the playground. I agree with using a "people first" kind of language; people who have disabilites generally prefer this and despite the many opinions that say use of this language won't change attitudes, I believe it will. I am lucky to be involved in situations that have prsented opportunities to teach others, including my own children, their friends, even adult acquaintences who happened to present a teachable moment - about use of these words. When someone was called "retarded", I pointed out what that really means and how it can easily offend someone with (or without)a disability. Over the years I did see a change in how some of these initially (and I believe - unintentionally) offensive folks came to understand how hurtful their language could be. More importantly, I believe this change coincided with a change in their thinking about what it means to have a disability. Yes, our language changes over time. Yes, not everyone will ever agree on the use of acceptable terms. And yes, there are situations in which words that can offend can also be used with humor - let's not get so serious about everything that complete intolerance abounds. But Marc, you do need to come into the light and drop that MR phrase. It is old, it is offensive to most and your excuses for its use just don't hold water. Lose the old language and set an example for your readers. And I'll say "thanks" with the hope that you are doing some thinking.

Posted by: MaggieO | June 16, 2006 9:19 AM

I suspect the real problem is the infuriating tendency of humans to regard differences as inferiorities. Do you think this tendency is part of the human personality, taught by culture and society, or both?

"Mentally retarded" isn't inherently offensive, but it has been twisted into ugly forms such as "retard" and now "tard." Sadly, the same will happen to any new clinical term. Advocates for the disabled are engaged in a laudable but hopeless struggle to keep people from coming up with new perjorative words. It's like plowing the sea.

Posted by: John | June 16, 2006 10:01 AM

mr. fisher, i almost always hate to read your column when you're writing about the public library; you never seem to like much about it. but, i agree with all you've written about both the arena stage blogger and politically correct speech concerning the mentally retarded. folks seem to conveniently forget about the first amendment to our constitution, even when the reason for their ire concerns relatively harmless speech.

Posted by: t | June 16, 2006 4:00 PM

Marc -- Lay off the retarded. They make up 85% of the Post's readership. Such a large majority deserves more respect.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 18, 2006 7:15 AM

Mental Retard - Takes one to know one, Marc

Posted by: Retard | June 20, 2006 7:13 PM

A few things to consider:
1)Hi, Marc. I mean no offense, but it's rather hard to side with you since you are opposed by the mothers of children with disabilities.
2) We're not questioning your right to free speech. You may have the right to be offensive but having the freedom to say something doesn't make it right.
(P.S. I have Asperger's)

Posted by: Guru | July 16, 2006 6:04 PM

Those who don't have a close relationship to a person that is delayed, metallly retarded, etc. should take a minute the next time they use the term in an offensive manner. I work for a DoD contractor and witnessed by boss (Director of OPS, 60 years old) make several comments about "special people" that ride small yellow buses, ......, and have the right to drool in public! I didn't approach him because I was shocked, stunned, speechlees. I did wear a bright yellow shirt the next day that had " School Bus Program" displayed proudly the next day followed by an email to him and the other party 3:30am the next morning. Needless to say, not a very hormonous business relationship, his loss! My daughter means the world to me, I just have to protect her from folks that don't understand until they get thier clock cleaned at 3:30am!

Posted by: Looking for another Job! | July 29, 2006 2:32 AM

Autism is yet another euphemism for mentally retarded! And those idiot savants are now autistic savant!

Posted by: Lou | August 10, 2006 10:18 AM

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