The R-Word

By Allison Nadler, SED 2017

I appreciate language. I love the fact that different cultures have their own language system, various parts of the world have different accents, and other languages rely on gestures or hand motions instead of spoken expression. Ultimately, language is comprised of words that have meaning, implications, and evoke reactions. They have positive or negative connotations, and a single word can have multiple definitions. My favorite word is serendipity; it means a happy accident. There is one word that makes me cringe every time I hear it: the r-word, retarded. As someone who has been involved in the special needs community for about nine years now, I am an avid proponent for the removal of this word from our everyday vocabulary. I emphasize everyday vocabulary because I think that if we completely erase the r-word from our language, we will have nothing with which to teach others. Just like the “r-word” campaign’s motto says, we must “spread the word to end the word.”

Casually, the r-word is used to describe someone who did something wrong or dumb, or a circumstance that transpired poorly. Before the r-word was added to informal language, it was a medical term used to refer to an individual with a cognitive impairment. Today, we recognize that this terminology implies negativity. It refers to an individual with deficits, learning difficulties, and a “slower” demeanor. As society continues to advance, we are changing the way in which we acknowledge an individual with disabilities. For example, instead of describing a child as someone with low-functioning autism, which implies that they are incapable of performing many skills and tasks, we refer to them as an individual with a high need for support; this way we are implying that this individual is someone who can complete tasks, he just needs help to do so. Simply changing the words we use can completely alter the overtone of a sentence or conversation. Using the r-word automatically establishes an association to a person with an impairment, regardless of the context in which the word is used.

Every time someone uses the r-word it reminds others that there are individuals in our communities who can’t. Teachers are reminded that their student can’t, children are reminded that their friend can’t, parents are reminded that their child can’t, siblings are reminded that their brother or sister can’t. Most importantly, it reminds the individual that he can’t, and perhaps, shouldn’t even try. One of the main reasons the r-word bothers me is because every time I hear it, all of the amazing individuals with whom I work are devalued, discredited, and hurt.

When I hear the r-word, I make it a point to ask the speaker to rephrase what they said. Most of the time, the r-word can be substituted with “annoying” or “senseless,” words that are not directly associated with an individual with a cognitive impairment. Occasionally, my interruption will result in a short conversation about the r-word and why the speaker should restate the sentence. I choose to act as an advocate for the disability community. As an advocate, I help raise awareness and promote acceptance. I always encourage others to follow my lead and “spread the word to end the word.”

Allison Nadler is a junior in the School of Education, majoring in Special Education