Slurs and Hate Speech: The Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
35 years after I first felt the pain of an ableist insult, “-tard” has suddenly become a politically fashionable suffix. It stems from the word “retard,” a word once used to refer to mentally disabled people that quickly took an insulting turn, and by the early 1980s, its sting was already significant. That its use in any form is still so common should be surprising. If only it were.
I started my particular fight against its use back in my own elementary school years when a music teacher made a joke that connected the music term “retard” (the short form of “retardando”, meaning a”slackening of tempo”) to how we would all look like “retards” if we didn’t pay attention to its notation in our sheet music. I have an older brother with multiple physical and cognitive disabilities stemming from birth injury, and her ugly joke dropped my heart into my stomach. I’d thought of her as beautiful and kind, but her mockery betrayed what I thought I knew. Judging by the laughter, people like my brother were jokes not only to her but also to most of the people in the room with me. They were so undervalued that she could casually drop their existence, my brother’s existence, as a jokey insult in a room full of people. My brother’s life was snark fodder.
I walked out. My whole body shook with fear, but I couldn’t stay. My teacher followed me and tried to explain herself, but her explanation was all deflection and excuses, and my favourite teacher was nothing to me after that. How could she so casually mock people’s lives based on their abilities?
Millions of people worldwide suffer because they are devalued like this. What feels casually funny to you is a hate like any other, and it feeds the inequality so many have to face every day from being socially ignored to not having adequate care to not having access to public life to being murdered. Use of the word “retard” or any variation of “-tard” out there normalizes and strengthens prejudice and hostility. It’s not casual or funny. It’s hate speech. If you use it, stop it, and if you hear it, call it out.
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