Is “Retard” Taboo if It’s Chronologically Accurate?

We live in a politically correct era, and as one who happens to think it’s a good thing and we should be mindful of words that make someone feel “less than,” I’m throwing open to input this controversial topic: should charged words such as “retard” be used in novels if they are accurate according to the time period?

It began like this: A writer friend of mine has written a story set in the early 1970’s, when the idea of political correctness was unknown and the word “retard” was the word commonly used to describe someone who was intellectually challenged, mentally handicapped, or developmentally disabled – not sure which term is preferable. I said I was in the process of going through the manuscript of my novel (published more than a decade ago, which will be re-released as an e-book this summer) and found the word uttered by one of my child characters. Feeling chagrined, I changed it. My writer friend forcefully defended his leaving the term retard in his book, saying it was accurate for the time period and we, as writers, should not go back and sanitize history.

Your input? Given the issue of accuracy for the time period, is it acceptable for an author to use the word retard or would an alternative word be preferable and still maintain the integrity of the piece? Which word is appropriate for replacing retard or retarded? Would you be offended if you read the word retard in the context of chronological accuracy?

A trio of winners celebrate their victories at a Special Olympics meet in North Carolina. The Special Olympics were founded in 1968 to provide children and adults with mental retardation continuing opportunities to train and compete in athletic events. © B.E. Barnes/PhotoEdit.

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About dkbunnell

Author, blogger, speaker.
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9 Responses to Is “Retard” Taboo if It’s Chronologically Accurate?

  1. John D says:

    Yes, it’s offensive. That’s not the issue here, though. It’s a matter of artistic integrity. If your character wants to use the word you MUST let him. We shouldn’t censor our characters.

  2. In performance art—whether acting, writing, directing—we seek the “truth” of the character. When the script or actor falls out of truth, the audience knows it, and the character loses credibility. Same applies in fiction … offensive or not, it portrays the truth of the character.

  3. diannegray says:

    I know I get a slap over the head by my 84 year old mother when I put the F bomb in my novels – but it’s a matter of staying true to the character. If that is what your character was like and it’s set in the 70’s when this was the norm, I see nothing wrong with it. It may come up in reviews but you’ll need to cross that bridge, as they say.

    • dkbunnell says:

      I’ve been watching this discussion, thinking about the input, and it has altered my perspective as far as my own scene. I’m going to let the R-word come out of the mouths of babes, as they say, but then use it as a teachable moment for their mom. That way, my characters will remain authentic — as will the mom, who will raise their consciousness, as mom’s naturally do, with her perceptiveness about the larger world and heart.

  4. Hannah says:

    So are you saying that there was a time that it was okay to use the slur retard? When was that exactly? No one was ever diagnosed with being a retard. It’s pejorative now and has always been pejorative. It also has nothing to do with being politically correct and everything to do with respect.

    • dkbunnell says:

      You’re right. There was never a time it was okay to use the R-word. The debate centers around the fact that its use was much more prevalent years ago before people, as a whole, gave much thought to slurs such as this one or, for example, the N-word. By comparison, we are, as a society, much more aware of the pain and anger that such pejorative words cause. It’s like we grew up as a society (although there are still elements that not only use these words, but use them with relish, from my online research, and I’m afraid there will always be those among us). Things we said when our culture was younger and used words prevalent at the time, are not acceptable as a more mature and caring culture. Let me give another example: Mark Twain used the N-word, because to use the word African American would be so out of touch with the times that it would sound ludicrous.

  5. Hannah says:

    You can’t use the Mark Twain analogy. It wasn’t written today and if it was they wouldn’t use the N word.

  6. dkbunnell says:

    You’re right. A poor analogy.

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