Is “That’s So Retarded” The New “That’s So Gay”?

Know this: mentally-handicapped LGBTs exist. It’s hard to know how many, but they do. And just like young LGBTs, they need help standing up against the slurs used to dehumanize them. Enter Lauren Potter, an actress with down syndrome who stars in the televised musical series GLEE. She and co-star Jane Lynch teamed up with other celebrities of color to discourage people from saying “retarded” when they mean “stupid” or “fucked up.” And guess what? Their PSA is a lot more direct than the lighthearted “Don’t Say Gay” PSAs.

Their website breaks down the history of “retard” for us:

When they were originally introduced, the terms “mental retardation” or “mentally retarded” were medical terms with a specifically clinical connotation; however, the pejorative forms, “retard” and “retarded” have been used widely in today’s society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, when “retard” and “retarded” are used as synonyms for “dumb” or “stupid” by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.

When it comes to slurs, retard, nigger, and faggot really do fall along the same line. “Nigger” is more of a huge no-no because of its hateful history. “Faggot” still gets used by music artists like Tyler the Creator, but the recent fines against NBA players Joakim Noah and Kobe Bryant suggest that the “f-word” is slowly falling out of favor in the public square. So what about “retarded”?

In 2003, The Black Eyed Peas had a hit with Let’s Get Retarded a song that most radio stations and sports stadiums wouldn’t play because of its slur against mentally handicapped people. Only after the band realized its limited appeal did they release a 2004 edit re-titled Let’s Get It Started. But you can still hear “the r-word” and see laughing stock “retard” characters in TV, films, and even casual conversation by those we’d otherwise consider open-minded.

After viewing the above student-made PSA, I decided to speak with Jim Bingham director of the Goodwill-sponsored documentary For Once In My Life. His film follows a band of Goodwill employees who all have mental and physical disabilities. Together they make just about the baddest musical combo you’ve ever heard—they’re not just good for mentally handicapped people, they’re pretty damned good, period. Bingham agrees that the mentally handicapped folks face incredible discrimination and hardship when working and living in the U.S., especially when it comes to disparaging slurs. Whether you know any such folks or not, they’re members of our community and deserve help standing up for their dignity, just like us.