Sticks, stones, and casual cruelty

By Matthew Hennessey

What’s so funny about retards?

It seems we’ve been having this conversation for a while. We had it in 2008, when Robert Downey Jr.’s character in the film Tropic Thunder advised another character never to go “full retard.” We had it last year when President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, called his colleagues “f**ing retarded.” And we’re having it now that Jennifer Aniston called her style of dress “retarded” on Live with Regis and Kelly.

So, what gives? Jennifer Aniston is no dummy. I’m sure she knows the difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. Yet, like so many seemingly bright people, she has yet to absorb this simple message: Casual use of the words “retard” and “retarded” as synonyms for “stupid” and “uncoordinated” is painful to those who love someone with an intellectual or physical disability.

Why do we keep having this conversation? Why isn’t this message getting through?

I suspect it’s because we have been too polite. By “we,” I mean those of us who care about the disabled. I mean the parents, siblings, and friends of people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and etc.

We let it slide sometimes. We hear friends, family, coworkers, and celebrities use these words and we keep quiet. For fear of seeming like sticks-in-the-mud, or simply to keep the peace, we don’t make a fuss. We don’t say, “You know I love you, but I hate that word.” We don’t say, “I’m really offended by that. Please don’t use that word anymore.”

But it does hurt. It does offend. And it is shameful that we have to keep going over this.

I give full credit to those, like Rahm Emmanuel, who realize they have done something wrong and apologize. Others, however, like Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Rush Limbaugh, and Stephen Colbert, have suggested that we should lighten up, or that we should learn to laugh.

To which I ask again, “What’s so funny exactly?”

Is it the way we overlook the disability in our children and siblings, and focus on their true natures and capabilities? Is it our desire to have them attend regular schools? Is it our tireless advocacy on their behalf? Or is it our stubborn refusal to get the joke?

Here’s where I’m going with this: We’re not letting you off the hook anymore. We’re not going to let it slide. We’re not simply going to take a breath, count to ten, and try to ignore the bullying of those who can’t defend themselves.

You think it’s funny that I’m a little overweight, or that I try to get to bed by 8:30? Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind. I can stand up for myself.

But my daughter can’t, and it is my mission to ensure that she doesn’t become a victim of casual cruelty. I am going to make sure that she lives a life of dignity.

So, no matter who you are, if you use that word in my presence, I’ll be getting in your face. I’ll be making you feel uncomfortable. I’ll be challenging you to defend your careless choice of words. I’ll be asking, “What’s so funny about retards?”

Because, try as I might, I just don’t get the joke.



  1. Ursula…Interesting, I thought I was the only person who caught her casual use of that term yesterday, as I watched the show. Those who I mentioned it to, reacted much in the way you describe above…”Oh, I’m sure she didn’t even realize she said it.” But, I realized it, and I was offended. Well-written post, here, and thank you.

  2. Oops, just realized that Matt wrote this one…sorry!

  3. Kathy Woodin, MD says:

    Matt, For all the Pediatricians in the world who know and care about the children and their families who must live with sticks, stones, and casual cruelty on a sadly, regular basis…THANKS for saying what needed to be said in such a clear fashion. There is no excuse for stupidity…No excuse at all. Love you all…Check the mail for incoming STICKERS…Talk to you soon. kw

  4. Thank you Matthew! It’s hard for me to put into words clearly and explain to others why that expression bothers me so. I appreciate your ability to do so. Btw, You have one of the best sense of humors of anyone I know which makes me feel a little less like a stick in the mud for not getting their inappropriate use of that word. Thanks!

  5. Mary Ellen says:

    Thanks. I tell my kids this often, although I don’t catch them using it very much. I just remind them that they have a cousin with Down syndrome, and it’s not a word that should be used as a put-down.

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