What You Are Really Saying When You Use The R Word

“Well that’s retarded,” one of my male residents says as a response to when I told him about a certain policy, what it was I cannot remember as well as his response.

“You really shouldn’t say that” I answered calmly, trying my hardest not to let every ounce of my SJW side come out.

“My mom does. Whatever,” he says. Shrugging off the disgusted I look I have on face, he walked back into his room like nothing occurred.

Of course, something did just occur. That exchange is a clear cut example of ableism. You probably know all of the other “isms”; racism and sexism are the ones that seem to get all of the attention but ableism is just as detrimental to our society. Ableism is the attitude in society that limits people of different abilities. When you use the “R-word”, which is what I will use to refer to the word retarded for the rest of this piece, in a derogatory way to mean stupid, you are actually using a slur.

I can mentally hear the outcry now. “Isn’t it a medical term? So it is okay to use.” You are partially correct. Mental Retardation was a medical term used to describe people with some form of intellectual disability. However, it has been slowly phased out and replaced with the term intellectually disabled, since the colloquial use of the “R-word” has come to mean stupid. It is the same thing as saying homosexuality is a mental disorder. Yes, it was in the past, but now it is not. By claiming the “R-word” is a medical term is citing old medical knowledge, and it makes you look quite foolish.

Okay, the next response is probably “Okay so what? It’s just a word”. Actually, it’s not just a word. Like many words in our language, it has strong connotations connected to it. The R word is a synonym for stupid. By saying it, you are stereotyping all people with intellectual disabilities as such. You are insulting an entire group of people with one word and reducing them down to only one negative quality. Yeah, words are pretty powerful stuff.

You are probably wondering why I, a 20-year-old, able-bodied college student, is dedicating an entire blog post to this matter. As a social work major, I have had the amazing opportunity to work at Early Intervention, a nonprofit that helps kids with all sorts of developmental disabilities, including intellectual ones. Seeing those kids every day made me really think about my word choice and what my words actually mean.

I, of course, am not the only one who feel strongly on this subject. I have many friends and colleagues who have worked with people with intellectual disabilities and are advocates to end the use of the "R-word." I asked one friend, whom I have known since middle school, to share her thoughts on the matter. Sarah is a college student studying physical therapy and disability studies. She has strong feelings on this matter. When sitting down with her to discuss this issue, her response hits the heart of the issue.

“They (people with intellectual disabilities) are actually more intelligent than the general population. They are kind hearted and some of the best people I know. I don’t think people understand that retarded is an insult to people with disabilities for pure ignorance. It just shows huge levels of immaturity.”

Sarah echoes the sentiments of so many allies for those with intellectual disabilities. If you want to read more opinions like hers, I would highly suggest checking out Spread The Word, To End The Word. It is campaign backed by the Special Olympics to raise awareness about the issue. You can also take a pledge promising to not use the "R-word."

Now that you are better educated on this subject matter, you can work on stopping staying the word. Sure, you will slip up from time to time, everyone does, including myself. Humans are not perfect, nor should we strive to be. Yet, even trying to stop shows that you are an ally for people with intellectual disabilities. Educate your family and friends as well. When you hear them use the word, gently tell them what you now know. With better education, I am sure that we can turn the use of the "R-word" into something socially unacceptable and make the lives of those with intellectual disabilities filled with more acceptance and compassion.

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