The R Word

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I recently came across a website whose cause is near and dear to my heart. Their tagline, which I've now heard on tv and on the radio, is "Spread the word to end the word." And of course, the word we're talking about is retarded.

I will be the first to admit that I was an r-word abuser for a long time. In high school and even college it was one of the more satisfying insults I could sling at someone (don't get me wrong, I swear like a sailor, but that one is just, I don't know, harsher). But as as I've aged, I've realized that maybe the reason that insult felt so affective is because, well, it's horribly offensive.

I don't have a bigger agenda here. I'm blessed to have a family of healthy individuals free from physical and mental handicap. But this word has become such a permanent part of our vernacular that we don't even realize it anymore. And it's time to do something because the abuse of the r-word is out of control.

Calling someone retarded is to say that they're not smart enough, good enough or whatever adjective enough of something for you. Whether you intend it to or not, the r-word is promoting a stereotype that those with mental or physical handicaps aren't enough.

Disability does not equal inability and disability certainly doesn't mean ignorable, which is what we're doing. We don't use horrible words like the n-word because it is offensive to a specific set of people. We don't use most vulgar words because they're offensive to a group. And the r-word is no different. It promotes a stereotype and it takes a medical diagnosis and makes it into an insult.

Into something derogatory.

This isn't about walking on egg shells, it's about respect. It's about respecting those who may not be able to stand up for themselves to tell you that this isn't cool. It's about understanding that your words have an impact, even if you're just talking to your friends or family. It's about not passing on this really tragic habit to the next generation.

Even before I read about the r-word campaign that's been launched, I've been enforcing this as a rule in my classroom. The use of the word retarded is an automatic demerit for disrespect. And you know what? I've given out probably nearly 20 of them. And do you know what else? Parents are mad. But they're not mad at their children, they're mad at me.

Something has happened to us. We don't value this group of people enough to recognize when we're being jerks. We don't even think that our language is wrong or that it is disrespectful. Well, newsflash kids, it is.

There's absolutely no reason why we can't irradicate this word. Why we shouldn't. I know it's become ingrained in your vocabulary, so here's my suggestion. The next time you're tempted to say the r-word, try ridiculous instead. Same sound, same general concept, and yet, not offensive. You can even say re-donk-ulous if that's more fun.

I know some of you will click away from this post and never think about it again, but try and consider for a moment the damage we're doing and how easy it would be to un-do. Imagine a generation of kids who respect those who are disabled or are differently-abled. Imagine a place where our favorite insult isn't insulting to a group of people who are working to be respected just like you and me.

Sure, maybe it's silly. Maybe it's not high on your priority list. But maybe it should be.

Spread the word to change the word. Pass it on.


Unknown said...

i also feel this way about using homophobic language, ie using "gay" and "fag(gy)" to describe people being stupid or of whom you don't approve.

we have as a society become terrifyingly oblivious to each other.

name? its all about names said...

I came here to read about the R word thinking you were finally going to let Republicans, Ray Nagin, or acid Reflux have its due.

You are right, about 90% of the time I call something retarded I actually mean stupid. I should just say stupid, its more accurate, and retarded implies that eventually smartness will come, just slowly - whereas stupid is forever and what I really mean most of the time.

There are many labels in the same boat, like midgets and dwarves preferring to be called "little". Often they are just as wide and deep as the rest of us though, so truth will set you free and they are "vertically little" or maybe just "short" I guess.

Who says we get to pick what others call us anyways? I know lots of folks who got a nickname like "Booger" or "Bumfart" in elementary school (real examples) and everyone still calls them that 50 years later whether they liked it or not! Nobody remembers their given names any more.

Then we get into I'm not white, I never met a black man, we are all colored people (even the transparent ones), and if everybody came from there like it says in the bible and koran then we are all actually Arab-Americans. Can't caucasian Africans who come here be African Americans too?

Names, names, names - is is a fetus or a baby or even a child? Are pro-lifers pro-life or just anti-abortion? Are pro-choicers pro all kinds of choices or just pro-choose-to-aborters?

Are conservatives actually people who don't want to change things, or is is a code word for patriots now, or christians. Are liberals all democrats, are conservatives all republicans? Wasn't Jesus liberal?

As Judge Judy said, "Beauty fades, but stupid is forever."

-signed Stupid Short Caucassian Colored Arab-American Conservative Democratic Pro-Mothers-Lifer.

Ness said...

Thanks for posting this, Katie. I totally agree about the R word. I also detest the word Sped which is Special Education. One of Kelli's teachers in high school used to talk about all the Speds in the hallway. It bothered my daughter a lot and I called a meeting with this teacher. He did not/did not want to see the disrespect of calling the special ed kids Speds. He ended up the superintendent of the school district. So glad I moved before that happened. People need to think before they speak. Keep up speaking up, Katie. You might not get converts, but it does make them think for a moment. And I like your demerit system for the R word. If parents brought their kids up right, they wouldn't be saying the R word or the S words(Stupid and Shut Up). My kids do not say them to this day and they're in their 20's and 30's now.

kimybeee said...

I have to say that I have 2 kids ages 13 and 15 and they use the words retarded and gay like we used to say stupid and idiot. I can say with 100% certainty that when my kids or even me and my husband use the word retarded - we don't ever think of a child or adult with a disability or medical condition.

Now before everyone gets all angry - let me tell you that we aren't one of the families lucky enough to have no one with a handicap or disability. Both of my kids also volunteer (this is the 4th straight year) to work with developmentally and physically disabled children to raise and show an animal together. They both treat all the kids they know, and their are many, with disabilities the way everyone should treat them.

I am very proud of how my kids behave and interact with others. Are they perfect 100% of the time - absolutely not - but are you? I know I certainly have times when I am not proud of my behavior, but I always try to smile and treat others like I want to be treated. And you know what, the majority of the time it can be a positive experience for both parties involved.

We all could take a close look at the way we talk and interact with others, but sometimes, you just have to realize that not everyone realizes that what they are saying is harmful to anyone. Since the news has mentioned the Special Olympic project, I know I have become more aware of how I use the word and I will encourage my kids not to use the word either.

For those that may just get really po'd at what I had to say, I am sorry, but sometimes you need to look at things from all kinds of perspectives.


Overflowing Brain said...


I don't object in any way to you bringing opposition, in fact, I appreciate your willingness to engage in a dialogue about it.

I don't think that the use of the word retarded or gay means that your children aren't well behaved wonderful kids (in fact, it's broken my heart to give demerits to some great kids who couldn't remember the rule), but would your kids ever say the word retarded in front of their animal partners? I think that often the way we really feel about things are measured in moments like that.

I think your children probably have a better sensitivity towards people with disabilities than most, but that shouldn't preclude them from removing derogatory words from their vocabulary.

I guess the way I look at it is, I can always do better. There's no reason not to, it can only help me and others for me to be as considerate as possible. It's rarely very fun, but I do think it's worth it.

I appreciate your input and do value your point of view, even if we're not seeing exactly eye to eye (though, when I read it again, we kind of are. Anyways, thanks again.

kimybeee said...

Like I said, it is about perspective. Sometimes you don't realize how something so simple can hurt someone else. And we will definetly try to be more sensitive.

The kids never use ANY negative words with their partners. The kids they have worked with are autistic, severely handicapped, blind, and adhd. They had brothers the first two years and then last year the brothers couldn't work out scheduling conflicts and their partners changed. I have never ever been prouder of my kids than when they work with their partners.

Like I said, the kids don't even associate that word with people. It is just another slang word to this generation.

By the way, when my son was in fifth grade, his straight from hell p.e. teacher called him retarded. The principal and I are best friends, so you can bet she was sorry!!!!!!


Sue G said...

Imagine a generation of kids who respect ANYTHING. I think we have raised a generation of people who were taught to "expect" rather than "respect."

What's so sad about the "name game" is that it hurts everyone, not just the person to whom it's directed.

People try so hard to fit in that they ridicule others for being different. The really sad part is that by fitting in they fail to celebrate their own uniqueness and, thus, cannot appreciate what makes others unique.

I guess Oscar the Grouch was right. It ain't easy being green.

But it should be.

Anonymous said...

Katie, your post hit "home" today; though slightly different. My landlord who is a complete, money, hungry SOB told me that he would never let any of those "N's" live in HIS building. Of the six units I am very good friends with two single moms. One of them has a daughter and one has a son; both are in sixth grade. So, after he made that comment to me I said so does that mean S&G are going to be evicted since the G is biracial but looks more African American than Iranian. I called the jerk on it right then and there and he laughed. And he told another neighbor as they were moving out that if he knew I was Jewish he would evict me. What's that all about? Let's just say he is a jerk.

JS from IL

Anonymous said...

Since I have several friends with Down Syndrome kids, this cause is very near and dear to my heart! Thanks for spreading the word!
Know that I'm always here praying!
Psalms 91:1-4 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Prayer Bears
My email address

Louise said...

I do the same thing in my classroom, with 'retarded', but also with 'gay'. I have been told by parents "I know a gay person and they don't care if people say that something is gay!" - and to that I answer okay, that is one gay person. There are probably many who don't mind - but there are many who do. I would rather err on the side of caution, and be sure I'm not insulting anyone.
I never said "retarded", but I have friends who do. I cringe everytime. From now on I'll speak up.

My husband hates "that's so gay" and "you're retarded" too... ever since I've met him he's been using "That's so vegan" as his replacement for those.

(Sorry for the novel! This is something that I, too, feel strongly about)

Jen said...

Good post! I am far from perfect, and occasionally I use "retarded" or "gay" in an inappropriate manner. (I always immediately call myself on it and apologize to whoever I'm with, and it's happening a lot less.)

But you are totally right, and people need to stop using hateful words like that.

When I was in high school, people liked to use the word "Jewish" to describe things that they thought were stupid. (It never made sense to me, but I grew up, and still live, in a very conservative white Christian city.) I was the editor of the school newspaper at the time and I wrote a column against that. I had more than one teacher compliment me on it, but the student body was PISSED at me. Luckily, I was confident enough in myself to know that what I wrote was right, and I stood behind it. Whether it made a difference or not, I hope at least one or two people thought about how derogatory terms like that are hateful and stupid.

Alas, there are very many stupid people in this world. :-/

Danielle Combs said...

Thank you for this post. I work with MR/DD clients, and my Aunt also has some DD, and very mild MR as well. I am not going to say I am perfect, I have been known to use the "R" word (and the "G" word), and I am really trying consciously to stop myself. I really like those commercials where someone says "That's so gay." and someone else says something like "That's so 16 year old with a cheesy mustache." and that is what I say a lot, no offense to 16 yr. olds with cheesy mustaches.

I agree that not just kids but A LOT of people Expect rather than Respect.

Daisy said...

Absolutely. I'm known for leaving comments on blogs that use "blind" as a synonym for clueless or dumb. My blind teen is one of the most observant people you'll ever meet.

Tiffany said...

I read a blogger who wrote a beautiful post about this same topic about 6 months ago.

I was so touched.

Its posts like these that cause a shift in people's behavior- for the better.

Great job, girl.