Daniel J Vance

Released this August, the Tom Cruise movie “Tropic Thunder” has grossed nearly $200 million and now has a great many advocates and people with intellectual disabilities very upset. Characters in this movie say the word “retard” perhaps a dozen times. Now the saying of “retard” in a Hollywood movie may not seem such a big deal to most of you, but to a person with an intellectual disability, its use constitutes a major put-down.

At one time or another, nearly every person with an intellectual disability has been called a “retard” by someone. It’s not the word itself that hurts so much as everything the word represents and the demeaning way it has been used historically. Calling a person with an intellectual disability a “retard,” or even saying “mental retardation,” is like pouring salt on an open wound.

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Not long ago, I had a face-to-face interview with Cliff Poetz, a national co-chair of the National Association of Direct Support Professionals and former national board member of ARC, the 140,000-member community-based organization of and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“When I hear the “r” word, it makes me very upset,” said 59-year-old Poetz. “I have a [intellectual] disability. I used to serve on the national ARC board, and it took us a long time to rewrite our own bylaws just to get rid of the word ‘retarded.’ If there is one thing right now that is important to us, it is getting rid of the “r” word, mental retardation. The word ‘retardation’ is still on so many laws and public records.”

ARC was “very unhappy” with the release of Tropic Thunder, he said, adding, “The movie certainly doesn’t help us. There has been a lot of uproar nationally about the movie.”

Poetz, also born with cerebral palsy, has had in his lifetime a number of surgical operations. He has been using a walker the last five years. He lives in public housing, and has a personal care attendant three days a week to help him with certain life chores.

In 2000, the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation honored Poetz with its “Self-Empowerment Award” and a $10,000 prize for his pioneering work promoting self-advocacy among people with intellectual disabilities.

He said, “I have been a self-advocate for 20 years. We have come a long way. And we are making progress.”

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