That’s So Disabled!
Posted by Neal on May 28, 2009
The good news: Adam has picked up some more of the language of his peers. The bad news: It’s the adjective retarded. The good news: He’s not using the word to insult people. The bad news: He’s using it to describe things that only someone with mental retardation could appreciate, as in That’s retarded! This usage makes sense only with the support of a presupposition that mentally retarded people like things that other people find stupid, but that kind of argument is going to be hard to explain to a kid. This is the same kind of semantic shift as happened with gay — from describing a person to describing something that only that kind of person would like, with the hearer implicitly asked to agree that gay people like things that other people find stupid. There are kids for whom this connection is so attenuated that they refuse to believe it, saying, “It’s not insulting to say something is gay! You’re not insulting a person, you’re just saying the thing is stupid”, and I’m sure I’ll hear the same kind of defense of retarded as a thing-describing adjective.
It’s funny that Adam should learn this meaning of retarded right about now, because it was just recently that the Franklin County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (FCBMRDD around these parts) to remove Mental Retardation from its name, a decision based, of course, on the fact that retarded is used much more often as an insult these days than as a clinical diagnosis. And I don’t think the noun form retard, with the stress on re, was ever used as anything but an insult. The OED lists it as slang, with the first citation coming from 1971 in CIA mental retards. I don’t know exactly what the former FCBMRDD is going to call itself now; maybe they’re going to follow the lead of the American Association on Mental Retardation, which changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
One problem with that is that developmental disability includes disorders other than mental retardation. If newspapers make this change in terminology, then when they write that someone has a developmental disability, it’ll be for the reader to guess whether we’re talking mental retardation, autism, epilepsy, or something else. Now maybe in cases where it really matters, they’ll use a more specific term, but then they’ll be stuck: For someone with autism or epilepsy, they can say autism or epilepsy, but for someone with mental retardation, all they’ll have available will be developmental disability, with the result that developmental disability will be restricted more and more to mean mental retardation. The same thing seems to be going on with blind. Last month I read a story in the newspaper about one Kenneth Knight, a “visually impaired” hiker who got lost on the Appalachian Trail. Well, I wondered, how worried should we be? Is he just really nearsighted, or can he make out light and dark, or is he completely blind? The article didn’t say. Having done some followup research just now, I find that Knight is indeed blind; also the good news that he was eventually found after he lit a fire to help searchers find him.
There are a couple of processes involving Horn’s Q and R principles by which a word’s meaning gets restricted over time. One is called Q-based narrowing (discussed here before). To recap, Q-based narrowing occurs when you have a term A that can refer to a variety of situations, a term B that refers to a more specific kind of situation. Therefore, via the Q(uantity) principle, A is narrowed in meaning so as not to include the meaning of B: If the speaker had meant B, they would have said it. An example in one of the linked posts is chicken vs. rooster. Another process, which I haven’t talked about before, is R-based narrowing. Like Q-based narrowing, this process occurs when you have a term A that could apply to a variety of situations, but this time there’s no more specific term B. Just through common usage, however, A comes to refer to one kind of situation. A typical example is undertaker, which has come to mean someone who engages in a particular kind of undertaking, i.e. preparing bodies for burial. The name R-based narrowing is a reference to the R(elevance) principle of saying no more than you need to say. If everyone knows the most common situation that term A refers to, there’s no need to specify further in a typical situation. Of course, in non-typical situations, you’ll need to create a more specific term, so the end result is that “[t]he results of R-based and Q-based narrowing may be synchronically indistinguishable” (as Larry Horn puts it in the 1984 paper where he coins the terms).
I was trying to decide if the narrowing of developmentally disabled to mean “mentally retarded” and visually impaired to mean “blind” were examples of either of these processes. I wouldn’t call them Q-based or R-based narrowing, because here, there are more specific terms, not just for situations other than the ones we’re talking about, but for those very situations. Specifically, we have mentally retarded and blind. Of course, those are the very terms that the speaker is trying to avoid, whether because of pejorization (for retarded) or who knows what other reason (for blind). For now, I think I’ll refer to this kind of semantic narrowing as taboo-assisted Q-based narrowing. The reasoning I imagine going on in a speaker’s head is: “Hmm, the speaker used term A, which could mean x, y, or z. If they’d meant x or y, they’d have said x or y. They could mean z, but they’re not allowed to say z, so probably they’re saying A instead.” If any readers know of an already-existing term for this kind of situation, please leave a comment.
Another problem with using a new term, of course, is that developmental disability will become just as tainted as retarded did, just as idiot, moron, and imbecile did many years earlier, unless things develop so that there are no longer any negative attitudes toward what it refers to. One newspaper article even brought in Ohio State’s Brian Joseph to provide a quote making this point.
Yet another problem is that some health insurance companies have the term mental retardation written into their policies on what kind of services are covered. The way insurers work today, there are already plenty of opportunities that they can and do use to deny coverage, so imagine how many more phone calls and emails to customer service there will have to be before it’s all settled that developmentally disabled is the new word for mentally retarded. If legislatures pass laws like this, updating the term for some negative condition, they should also write in an automatic 20-year euphemism reevaluation, kind of how we allow for cost-of-living increases in Social Security payments. By that time, who knows, maybe disabled will have progressed along the same path as both retarded and gay, and we’ll get to hear kids saying, “That’s so disabled!”