Mean-Spirited or Careless? Regardless of Intention, “Retarded” Remains a Common Insult Heard Among Adults and Teens

NEW YORK, N.Y. – March 1, 2017 – The word “retarded” remains an ever-present, however unfortunate, expression in the everyday dialogue of Americans. What was once used as a non-derogatory term to describe someone with an intellectual disability or other developmental delay, has since become an insult, used to show contempt for another person, object, or situation. Whether its usage is malicious or merely careless, the offensive term’s prevalence in Americans’ vocabulary has yet to wane.

From teens to adults, a vast majority of Americans say they have heard another person call someone a retard (92% of adults and 91% of teens). Further, over half of adults and nearly half of all teens have heard the derogatory phrase directed towards a person who has an intellectual disability (56% of adults and 47% of teens). The lack of sensitivity doesn’t appear to end with personal affronts, however. Nearly three in ten teens and four in ten adults agree there’s nothing wrong with using the word “retarded” to describe a thing or situation (27% and 38%, respectively).

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,319 U.S. adults ages 18+ and 512 U.S. teens ages 13-17 surveyed online between January 24 and February 3, 2017. This independent survey was not commissioned by any organization; however, we sought and received valuable input from Special Olympics International.

Today marks the ninth annual Spread the Word to End the Word Day. The campaign was created in February 2009 by youth who participated in the Special Olympics Global Youth Activation Summit, held in conjunction with the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Idaho. The campaign evolved out of a united passion to promote the positive contributions people with intellectual disabilities make in communities around the world. What started as one single action of taking the pledge to end the use of the R-word has evolved into communities across the world challenging others to talk, think and write with respect.  

Reactions to “the R-word”

When faced with the situation of hearing someone else called a retard, about half of adults and teens alike say they felt bad/sorry for the person being picked on (47% and 57%, respectively) or told the person it was wrong to say (50% and 51%, respectively).  Very few state they didn’t care (8% of adults, 7% of teens) or joined in and called the person a retard as well (3% of adults, 2% of teens). However, as many as one in four Americans say they did nothing (23% of adults, 25% of teens).

Taking a deeper look into the reactions of adults, those who take a vocal stand against calling someone “retarded” are significantly more likely to:

  • Be women: 59% (vs. 40% of men) and,
  • Have someone in their household with an intellectual disability: 63% (vs. 49% of those without).

Feelings of indignation are a bit stronger among those who have heard the term applied to someone with an intellectual disability. Seven in ten teens say they told the person it was wrong to say (70%) or felt bad (68%) and about six in ten adults say the same (63% and 59%, respectively). Fewer in each group also say they did nothing (25% of adults; 19% of teens).

Trends: the Good and the Bad

Perhaps most troubling is the lack of definitive decrease in the usage of the term over the past 9 years. While teens are slightly less likely to say they’ve heard anyone called a retard (95% in 2008 vs. 91% today), they’re significantly more likely to say they’ve heard someone with disabilities called a retard (41% in 2008 vs. 47% today). Compared to 2016, adults are more likely to say they have heard someone called a retard (92% vs. 90%) and to have heard the term applied to someone with disabilities (56% vs. 49%).

On a positive note, however, there have been significant drops in the proportion of teens who report they did nothing (-17 percentage points from 2008), laughed (-22 percentage points), didn’t care (-28 percentage points), or joined in (-9 percentage points), and significant increases in those feeling bad/sorry for the person being picked on (+12 percentage points) or telling the person it was wrong to say (+21 percentage points).

“In the nine years since the launch of Spread the Word to End the Word, hundreds of thousands of young people with and without intellectual disabilities have taken up leadership of this movement for inclusion,” said Tim “Timbo” Shriver, co-founder of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.  “We have known for years that they have had a profound impact locally – on their schools, their teams, their families and their communities all across the nation and the world. Now, with these new poll results in hand, we are beginning to see the way young leaders are having a systemic cultural impact, fundamentally reshaping the way we see, include, and connect with each other beyond the false boundaries of disability or difference.”

Comfort with Intellectual Disabilities

The pervasiveness of the insult does not appear to reflect the true feelings of Americans towards individuals with intellectual disabilities as a majority feel comfortable working with and living near those with intellectual disabilities. Similar majorities of adults and teens agree they’re comfortable having a person with intellectual disabilities as a neighbor (92% of adults; 95% of teens) and they feel comfortable participating in a group activity with a disabled individual (89% each).

Just 13% of adults and 10% of teens say they would not want to be friends with someone who has intellectual disabilities. Greater tolerance may come with older age as younger adults are much more likely than their older counterparts to say they don’t want to be friends with someone who has intellectual disabilities (20% 18-34 and 17% 35-44 vs. 9% 45-54, 9% 55-64, 9% 65+).

Among teens, just 18% say they don’t personally know anyone with intellectual disabilities. Most commonly, they know a student in their school but not in their class (49%), a family member (19%), or a student in their class (17%).


This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between January 24 and February 3, 2017 among 2,319 adults (aged 18 and over). Data from 2008 was collected between Sept. 17 – 26, 2008 among 696 U.S. teens ages 13-18 and data from 2016 was collected between July 14 – 27, 2016 among 510 teens (ages 13-17) and 2,563 adults (ages 18+) who reside in the U.S. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

The Harris Poll® #8, March 1, 2017

By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll