Let’s have a little chat about “mongols” and R.E.T.A.R.D.S, shall we?

Photo credit: Murat Ozkasim for Kintsugi Shoot / Model: Kathleen Humberstone

Was that a gasp? Why be so touchy? Why get so easily offended? Political correctness gone mad again? Come on, they’re just words, aren’t they? 

Or are they?

You tell me…

First off, Dr Langdon Down was the first medical professional to even take an interest in individuals like my daughter, back in the 1860s. That’s when he coined his fateful medical phrase to describe them: mongoloid idiots. Little did he know how perennial and adversely impactful that phrase would become. (Although, I could argue that any phrase he used would have suffered the same journey…)

Mongoloid: due to some similar facial characteristics with people from Mongolia. (In those days, who cared about Mongolia, or the feelings of its people!`)

Idiots: because individuals like my daughter were deemed ineducable, totally unable to learn anything (not that anybody had ever bothered to try, mind you).

As a result, for the next 100 years, the term mongol was widely and commonly used in medical textbooks. That is, until Mongolia joined the UN in 1961 and then the WHO in 1965 (which gave them the clout they needed to be heard and especially listened to) and asked for that description to be removed. That’s how the word mongol was officially dropped when referring to people with Down syndrome. Not so easily erasable from those medical textbooks and even less so from people’s psyche after 100 years of damage…

Now, if words were just a juxtaposition of letters, or a series of sounds or hand gestures, why do they trigger such a powerful range of emotions?

Their reach, impact and resonance keep changing (usually for the better) across history and reflect a nation’s views and perceptions at the time.

Here’s a chronological bird’s-eye view on the LEGAL and SOCIAL labelling of disability over the past 100 years in the UK (fasten your seatbelt): Lunatics, unsound of mind, idiots, imbeciles, mentally defective, feeble-minded, mentally deficient, backwards ( I kid you not, when Mencap was founded in 1946, it was originally called the National Association of Parents of Backward Children), subnormal, mentally handicapped, disabled, people with learning difficulties, people with learning disabilities.

Quite a journey for those with an intellectual impairment, wouldn’t you say?

I understand the whole point of using pejorative words is to hurt the person you are saying those words to, to humiliate them, to make them feel LESS or simply to make fun of them. OK, I get it, but there are so many other harmless options out there, ones that don’t tarnish and hurt a whole segment of the population in the process!

As for R.E.T.A.R.D., well, unless you’ve been living on an island with no wi-fi for the past 10 years, you should know this is one of the most offensive and inappropriate insults which unequivocally and inexcusably demeans all people with intellectual disabilities.

Listen to me: 

Words echo your soul, they mirror your heart and they are LOADED. 

The words YOU use are the tip of YOUR iceberg.

Their impact can be devastating or elating, liberating or enslaving, depending on whether they come as Pandora’s box or a Jack-in-the-Box. Your choice, your responsibility, your bad…

You are better than that.

Look up https://whatsortsofpeople.wordpress.com/2008/08/11/ableist-language-alternatives/

(For more on the R-word, check https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2017/03/06/the-word-and-challenging-history-words-for-dummies/6heGdgEkMRaUw4MPYVF6yN/story.html#comments)

3 thoughts on “Let’s have a little chat about “mongols” and R.E.T.A.R.D.S, shall we?

  1. in the ancient past, languages had fewer words with precise meanings. old words you mention here were not seen offensive, the true can’be be replaced when one speak seriously. Many words received bad new meanings because of imigrants, in all languages.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s