The “R” Word: why it matters

When our family first stepped on the shores of Holland, we used to roll our eyes when people fussed about language. You don’t say “Down syndrome child,” you say “a child with Down syndrome.” You don’t say “disabled,” you say “differently abled.” It was a lot of PC crap, we thought. Except for this one word. The “R” word. A word that was part of our daily language, an expression of contempt for normal, everyday things that got on our nerves.

Come on, you know you’ve said it, too. That’s retarded.

That expression was stripped from our vocabulary almost instantaneously, because all of a sudden a horrendously ugly word had personal meaning for a child we loved more than life.

But for a lot of people we know, without that connection, that phrase is still very much a part of their vocabulary. I’m here to say: Stop using it. It matters.

Here’s why it matters.

In the dictionary, “retarded” means “slowed.” But when you use the expression That’s so retarded, it doesn’t mean “slow.” It means stupid, incompetent. It means You are an inconvenience to me. It means you are an object of my contempt, beneath me, and undeserving of being treated with respect.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen it used twice on Facebook. One person used it to describe a hotel clerk that gave her poor customer service. Another used it to describe a sociopolitical situation he didn’t like. In neither situation did it have any connection with something slowed or delayed. It was an expression of dismissal and contempt.

And here’s the problem, folks. Even though you aren’t using the word “retarded” as a derogatory title for a person who is developmentally delayed, somewhere deep in your psyche, the original target of the word is still there. You still know about mental and physical retardation. At a visceral level, you still connect this word with deformity, with “other”-ness—that is why the expression that’s retarded holds such power of contempt.

Now, don’t fuss at me for assuming that I know what you’re thinking. I know this to be true, because I’ve been there.

And when that word is consistently used as an expression of contempt, it belittles the whole spectrum of meanings—the ones you overtly intended as well as the ones connected with it at a subconscious level. That is why using “the R-word” wounds. That is why it matters. Please, excise this from your vocabulary. There are enough walls between “Them” and “Us” as it is.