The R word is retarded: A look at Down’s Syndrome

There’s an unfortunate trend right now in society where instead of calling people stupid, they say retarded. For those who don’t know, mental retardation actually means that the brain learns more slowly. However, many people with mental retardation are able to function quite well in society. I know of a man who had MR and lived by himself in an apartment and had a pet cat, just like any normal human being.

The reason I bring up MR is that I work with people with developmental disabilities. This includes those with Downs. Down’s Syndrome is a genetic disease: people with it have an extra 21st chromosome. They tend to have small eyes that are closer together, long torsos but short legs, and problems with their back, hips, and knees. There are a lot more symptoms, but I’m focusing on the visual aspects for one reason: We can look at them, know that they are mentally retarded, and be prejudiced because of it.

I’m going to talk about a woman with Down’s. Let’s call her Pam. Compared with her peers (who also have Down’s), Pam is less able mentally. She takes a longer time than two others in her house to do simple tasks and to learn new things. She is illiterate. Not only does Pam have Down’s, she is less “smart” than her peers.

“But Megan!” You say, “Megan! Aren’t you against using the r word and prejudice???” Yes. Yes I am. Which is why this story was so powerful to me. So keep reading, dammit.


Pam has a habit of repeating questions. One of my favorites is “How are you?!” and I say “I’m GREAT! How are you?!” She answers, “I’m great, how are you?!” until one of us stops. It’s the best. Anyways, one of the ones she repeats is “She’s smart, right?” And I always answer “Yes, Pam. She’s smart.”

One day, I changed my answer. She asked me if I’m smart, and I answered “Yes I am. You’re smart, right?”
Her answer broke my heart.

“I don’t think so!”

I don’t think so. Even being the “dumbest” woman in her house, Pam knows. She KNOWS there’s something different about her, something “bad”. She knows. And it affects her.

Pam has nieces that tell her she’s retarded. They see it as a joke, but it isn’t for her. Pam gets tweens making fun of her, and she looks ashamed of herself. Children stare, and she looks uncomfortable. Even the most “retarded” person knows what people say and is affected by prejudice.

Pam is a beautiful person. All the people I work with are beautiful. And no matter what, they know what you’re saying. They know when you’re making fun of them and staring, or treating them differently. With one look, you know they have Down’s and can guess their problems in life. You know they are mentally retarded and are judged for it.

Going out into the world with Down’s Syndrome is hard enough. Pam gets frustrated when she’s unable to learn as quickly as others around her, and she is constantly learning the same things over and over again. ¬†People think they know her because they know Down’s Syndrome. They don’t.

I get so angry towards people about this subject, so I’m going to have to stop here. But I have one last thing to say: Saying retard? It’s retarded.