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Skeptics and Retards

by Martine O'Callaghan

June 13, 2013

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Donate Bill Maher is lauded by many skeptics for his criticism of organised religion. Some prefer to just gloss over or totally ignore his rejection of "western medicine" as he likes to call it and his many rants about the fantasy dangers of vaccines (as opposed the rare and real ones). Sarah Palin, on the other hand, is a pretty much universal figure of fun for skeptics and I do think of myself as a skeptic. No doubt about it though, when Bill Maher, or anybody else for that matter, calls her five year old disabled son "retarded" I'm going to align myself on Palin's side of that fight every single time.

I'm a tough old bird. Not much offends or shocks me but I am troubled by the fact that so many people who identify as skeptics use "retarded" as an insult and beyond it's outdated medical context to insult and belittle the credulous and deniers of science. Retard, as a noun, never really had a medical context and has only been used as a term of abuse to liken a neurotypical person to an intellectually disabled one. This is ableism. Likening individuals whose views are not respected within the skeptic community (such as it is) to people with disabilities utterly denigrates and "others" skeptics with disabilities.

Lately, the label retard has morphed to describe behaviour of people who are panicked, flustered and angry as hell - "he just went full retard" for instance. Just like any form of prejudice, ableism stereotypes: not all people with intellectual disability flail, have motor ticks, exhibit stereotypy, have seizures or are prone to anxiety attacks and meltdowns. Not all people who do experience these are intellectually disabled. Contrary to popular belief, people with intellectual disability are not stupid. People who have been hurt by the word "retard" are not stupid.

Maher isn't the only science denier to employ the word retard.Ann Coulterposted this hateful tweet during the 2012 Presidential campaign:

Like Palin's son, athlete, John Franklin Stephens has Down Syndrome. His open letter to Coulter in response to her bigotry is eloquence itself:
I thought first of asking [you] whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.

Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are " and much, much more.
It’s frustrating arguing with the wilfully ignorant. It’s the reason I will not go to obviously anti-vaccine/pro-disease pages; that and they are censorship fiends. Sometimes, I will engage on thread that may get an audience of the undecided. The language I see used by the pro-disease to describe autistic children frightens me. Saying that a child’s life is over because they are autistic seems to me like an excuse for neglect and abuse. I understand that confronting people who are spreading dangerous misinformation is, to put it mildly, trying. Using words that denigrate people with learning disabilities like "retard" and retarded to mock science deniers is tacit agreement that the learning/developmentally disabled are of inferior worth as human beings compared to the neurotypical.

Retard is the word that gets shouted at people, just like my beautiful autistic son, for having the temerity to be out in public whilst disabled. When the homes of disabled people are vandalised, it is “retard” and “spaz” you see sprayed on the wall. Those are the words that get scratched into cars, and adapted vehicles. The word is used as a weapon to oppress and exclude. I cannot think of a single skeptic who would use the N- or F- words yet some whose opinions I respect and hold in high regard still use "retard" and "retarded" or promote work by others who use these words as terms of abuse. Please consider your use of the term “retard” and its derivatives. More than that, if you would not let terms of racial abuse or homophobia go unchallenged then, please, challenge others on their use of ableist language.

Perhaps you think I am being over sensitive. It’s hard not to be when the person you love most in the entire world has this word used against him for flapping, singing, feeding from a teeted bottle or being in a major buggy.If you still think that using the r-word just isn’t so bad, please take the time to read this post. It is written by Alyssa, a young autistic woman who writes the Yes, that too blog. In her post for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network entitled Calling People the R Word, she writes
If people didn’t think that having a developmental disability made you inherently worse than or less than, we wouldn’t have the problem we currently have (that developmental disability is consistently used as an insult).
As skeptics and as compassionate human beings we should be asking ourselves and others why is it still deemed acceptable to use as abuse terms that describe a group that is diverse, that is stillfighting for marriage equality,employment equalityandequality in health care.


by Martine O'Callaghan

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