We need to talk about the R-word.
How many of us have been in a conversation with someone — a friend, a coworker, or a new acquaintance — and he or she casually uses the word “retarded” or one of its variants? As a medical label for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the word was once considered to be neutral, clinical and incapable of offending. But, over time the word has been put to other uses and has become problematic and incredibly hurtful. The word now carries a pejorative meaning that reinforces painful stereotypes.
It has become a slur.
When people use the word ‘retard’ or ‘retarded’ it isn’t to describe someone who has a disability. It is used to describe someone who they deem is inadequate or to describe something that doesn’t function correctly. When used in those contexts it becomes a word that hurts, it hurts people with disabilities and their families. In fact, using the R-word in this way is considered a slur and (to be blunt) a slur is considered hate speech. The definition of hate speech is, “attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation.”
In this, as in other cases of discrimination, it’s best to let those directly affected speak for themselves.
“Why am I hurt when I hear ‘retard?’” John Franklin Stephens, Special Olympics global ambassador once wrote in a blog for Huffington Post. “Let’s face it, nobody uses the word as a term of praise. At best, it is used as another way of saying ‘stupid’ or ‘loser.’ At worst, it is aimed directly at me as a way to label me as an outcast — a thing, not a person. I am not stupid. I am not a loser. I am not a thing. I am a person.”
As Mr. Stephens makes clear in this blog post, and other op-ed articles he’s penned, people can often be thoughtless and cruel, never fully understanding the damage that their words can have.
In the past few years, there have been several high profile campaigns that have launched encouraging people to make a pledge to end their use of the R-word. Campaigns like “Spread The Word To End The Word” serve as heartfelt pleas that encourage audiences to banish the word from their vocabularies. One of the most memorable was a 30 second PSA that hit airwaves back in 2011 featuring Glee stars Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter reminding viewers that it is not acceptable to use the R-word.
The one thing public awareness campaigns from organizations like R-word.org and similar organizations do is stress that you stop and think before using the R-word next time. Once you realize that it is never okay to use the word in a derogatory way, let your friend, coworker, or new acquaintances know that what they are doing is wrong and that they’re words can hurt someone.