Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

An Open Letter to Those Who Still Use the Word “Retarded”

This article is written for my mom, and in memory of the late Morley Klein.

In a society as progressive as ours is today, we should not be bringing anyone down – we should be lifting people up.

This is not written with the intent of pointing fingers towards anyone and telling them that they must filter themselves. Rather, this letter is written to shine a light on the nature of mental illness, loaded insults, and the impact that words can have.


Dear Reader,
If you are one of the many people who still use the word “retarded” in casual, everyday conversation, this letter is for you. I want to start off by saying that I do not think that you are a bad person. Using this word has become so normalized that you may not be aware of the implications your word choices have. Though you may not realize it, there is unfortunately a negative undertone that has been, in many circumstances, lost in translation. So, allow me to explain from the beginning. It is my hope that after reading this you might be given a new understanding, one that you otherwise would not have been offered and that may influence your choice of words in the future, encouraging you to choose something other than “retarded”.

Where does the term “retarded” come from?

The word “retarded” stems from the French term “un retard”, which, in English, translates to slow or a delay. In 1895 the word was adopted into the medical realm to refer to those with Down syndrome. Today, we understand that this condition is the product of a genetic mutation. Specifically, a third copy of chromosome 21. The result of this is physical growth delays, and an IQ around 50. Those with Down syndrome also all typically share similar facial characteristics, making it easy to characterize.


Many years ago, there was little information regarding this condition as the technology and insight we now have was not available. As medical professionals did not know the things we know today, they referred to those born with Down’s as “mentally slow” or “mentally retarded”.

Progressing to the use of Derogatory nature

However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the term retarded began to be used in a derogatory manner. Historically, Down syndrome was frowned upon – it was something that people were ashamed of.

Those born with it were made to feel like they were a problem that needed fixing. During these times it was commonplace to send a child with Down syndrome to an institution and simply leave them there. This was done not only because there was an absence of the information needed for parents to care for a child born with this condition, but also since society made people with Down Syndrome out to be atrocities. If you’re reading this and finding this far-fetched or hard to believe, I promise you that this was the unfortunate reality. Also, remember that this was not too long ago either, this was happening just 20-30 years ago.

Parents of these children were completely alienated by society because of this harsh reality and the unfortunate societal influences. They didn’t even want to be associated with them, or let others know about their “retarded child”. Physicians went as far as to recommend terminating pregnancies upon discovery.

It did not take long for society to adopt the term retarded as an insult. This is when the word became offensive and hurtful. Where initially the term was used medically to describe a person with a developmental delay from Down syndrome, and meant no harm, this term quickly became something much more harmful. The way society viewed these people changed the way the word retarded was used. It did not take long for the phrase “retard” or “retarded” to change into a way of describing someone or something they considered stupid. The seemingly harmless medical term was now a way to purposely offend others. The problem doesn’t even center on how they didn’t give those that they were hurting a second thought, but that they didn’t even care. It didn’t matter if these people were hurt because they didn’t matter.

I realize that over time the source of some phrases has been forgotten because they have become commonplace. Many people using the word retarded in their regular vocabulary are probably unaware of the word’s origin – to them it is simply a term used to describe something unintelligent. But this is why education is so vital for today’s generation. I’ve often heard the excuse that the word doesn’t have the meaning it once did, and I understand that argument, but I don’t agree with it. The fact is that the word has exactly the same meaning, but people are just uneducated on the topic. It’s not their fault, but as a society, we need to do better.  Due to the past generation’s lack of empathy, a medical term was transformed into something intended to hurt, attack, and dehumanize others. This generation just happens to be unaware, or uncaring, of that fact. The medical realm is aware, however. Once it became clear that this term was being used in a way it wasn’t intended, a change was made. Instead of referring to Down syndrome patients as “mentally retarded”, a new array of more politically correct terms were created. Some include: developmental delay, learning disability, and intellectual disability. Society soon followed suit, and today, I am proud that we live in a time where these people are accepted for who they are and looked at as a gift – because that is what they are.


I am fortunate to have been raised in a household that has always worked to instil values such as acceptance, inclusivity, and understanding in me. I am also the daughter of a mother who grew up with a brother that had Down syndrome. So, from a young age, I was taught about not only this condition, but also educated on what these people are actually like. From the stories I have heard, and from the people I have had the absolute privilege of meeting with Down syndrome in my 21 years, I can personally tell you that these are some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet. Their existence and presence is such a light. They are gentle, caring, playful, sweet and some of the happiest people you will encounter. I’m proud that today we live in a world with greater access to knowledge and resources that can help those with Down syndrome excel greatly. Individuals with Down’s can lead successful, full lives. I’ve heard several stories of Down syndrome patients successfully graduating and being employed. That is the world we live in today.


The world we live in today is a world where a video will get posted to social media of someone with a disability living out their potential, working as a waiter at a restaurant, and it goes viral because as a collective community, we are proud and we are rooting for this person. But, it is also a world where we continue to use terms that dehumanize them. To me, this does not add up. All I can attribute this is to a lack of education, and that is why I’m writing this today. Education is so crucial at this point and we must do our part to educate those around us. I’m honoured that I live in such a progressive and accepting generation, but that is exactly it. We are progressing, we haven’t gotten there just yet, but I know that we will. I urge everyone reading this to consider their words carefully, because they can really hurt others. Whether it is your intention to be hurtful or not, when you use the word retarded in any manner other than to describe a previous medical term, the fact is that you are hurting someone and you’re also making it okay for the next person to do so as well.

As a community, as a society, as a friend, as a co-worker, as a parent, it is time that we change our ways. It is time that we put a stop to derogatory terms that hold negative undertones aimed at people or groups. In today’s society, we have come so far, and it’s about time we go even farther. We have made tremendous progress to pave the way for acceptance and tolerance on so many different channels, so let’s continue this trend and stop using the word “retarded”. There are so many other words to choose from, so let’s stop unnecessarily offending innocent people. In today’s society, we should not be bringing people down; we should be lifting people up.


I hope this article gave you some insight on this topic, and I hope you will be careful with the words you choose. For more information, and to help the cause, I suggest checking out the Canadian Down Syndrome Society.




Rachel Elysha B

Wilfrid Laurier '17

Rachel is just your average Canadian, who's passionate about all things legal when it comes to American politics and how the US and Canada intersect. As well, a self proclaimed yoga enthusiast, fashion consumed and pop culture junkie. When she's not writing for Her Campus, you can probably catch her at the mall, reading up about the latest in the world of globalism and government, and watching beauty tutorials on YouTube 
Similar Reads👯‍♀️