Taking Back the R-Word

Joe Biel and I have a couple things in common. We’re about the same age. We like zines and trains and bikes. We also got our autism diagnoses in adulthood after an impossible accumulation of relationship and communication failures.

One of the most difficult and most essential pieces of the puzzle of putting your life together, is accepting and embracing the truth of who you are. It’s not easy. Especially when there’s a whole toolbox full of words with hurtful connotations that have been tossed around in schoolyards, backyards, and locker rooms for as long I can remember.

One of these words is “retarded.” It literally means slowed or impeded. The clinical term ‘mentally retarded’ was introduced to be a more scientific replacement for older, cruder diagnostic terms like idiot, imbecile and cretin. And, as is usually the case, the word was quickly weaponized into a derogatory term to be used against any and all of the usual targets of bullying.

After my diagnosis I remember feeling shame at the thought of being ‘a secret retard’ all my life. I’d been in the closet but I didn’t know which closet. Or which hallway. All I knew is that it had always been so, so hard to fake being normal. And I didn’t want to say retarded. Or autistic. And I found myself using that side-stepping turn of phrase of “being on the spectrum.”

I was having trouble embracing and accepting the truth about myself. And the truth is that no one word sums up the truth of my being. Just like everybody else.

No one word defines me. Especially not a weaponized clinical term that sows fear and disgust.

Which is why when Joe asked me if I’d like to contribute to an radical autism zine he was putting together called Don’t Be Retarded, I knew it was perfect. I knew exactly what I would write about.

I’m really proud to be part of this collection. Every contribution is an honest and clear voice unafraid to be who they are, to admit where they come from, and to have pride in themselves despite the lifetimes of weaponized language they’ve had to face.

It’s available from Microcosm Publishing and, hopefully, wherever radical autism literature is sold.

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