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.

14 thoughts on “The “R” Word: why it matters

  1. Ann

    Kate, I so agree w/ this, having had these conversations on other fronts. When people dismiss an expression as “PC,” I want to scream — “Yes, we are trying to extend basic human recognition to others — and oh, by the way, if someone asks you, Please don’t refer to me as X, please call me Y — you would do it, it’s good manners. Simple Christian charity.

    Thanks for writing this up so well.

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think as a teenager, I was introduced to the use of the word you are talking to…probably in 7th or 8th grade when kids start to experiment with language like that.

    As an adult, I hear other adults use it and it makes me cringe. And sometimes when I correct them (because I’m annoying like that) they look at me like I’m some sort of idiot that I should know they don’t REALLY mean anything negative in THAT way.

    But I agree with you…using the “R” word does matter and we should all stand up and say so.

  3. What you’re overlooking is the fact that originally neutral technical terms are inevitably subjected to a process of derogation. As soon as Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled becomes widely used, it will be shortened to IDD or simply, ID. You see where that will lead.

  4. Inquisitive

    I ran across your article and found it interesting. I’m truly sorry to hear about the challenges you find but are happy to see your more-than-able attitude. Hats off.

    However, I wonder about your assessment of the definition of the ‘R’ word. I agree with the more tactical and simple definitions of “stupid” and “incompetent” – but wonder how you jumped to the much more sensitive and specific definitions of “You are an inconvenience to me” and “you are an object of my contempt, beneath me, and undeserving of being treated with respect”… ask any kid (or adult) that still bucks the system and uses it – it simply means “dumb”.

    You request that others remove it from their vocabulary. Is that the correct reaction to this? Or is it possibly an over-reaction? My heart goes out to anyone facing this event and circumstances – I’m not sure how I (as a father) would have the strength myself. But you obviously have the strength to more than handle this – what is the minor sting (relatively) of this silly word?

    Please consider what I’ve written before just nonchalantly deleting it or not posting it. Ask yourself – what is the next offensive word? What seems silly to you that does not seem silly to others and vice-verse? From the old adage – ‘sticks and stones…’

  5. By the way, sorry to barge in here like I did above without an introduction or explanation. My name is Chris. I work with adults and teenagers who have disabilities emotional, developmental, physical. I review medical, psychological, psychiatric, school, and other records, administer a wide variety of tests, conduct workplace-sim observations, and write reports documenting same and making recommendations based upon the results and records and interviews, etc.

    Many, in fact most, of the IEPs I read use the term that includes the “R” word.

    Part of the pejoration process I discussed above arises doubtless out of the frustration professionals and support staff experience when providing services to any population “with a label,” and that frustration includes dealing with policies, legislative mandates, and so forth, that too often have no connection to anyone’s experienced realities.


  6. Chris, my point is that when you generalize that label from people to whom it actually applies to (like my daughter) and then apply it to people or situations that are annoying you, either from a customer service or a political standpoint, you cause an automatic negative labeling, which then reflects back on the original, “real” target (like my daughter) with an automatically negative–increasingly negative–connotation.

    Sorry, I can’t be any more fluent than that right now; I’m on a time limited computer, which is all the internet access I have today…

  7. Sarah M.

    Beautifully written (as always!). This is something that has just come onto my radar since Cam’s diagnosis, I’m ashamed to admit. Chris, the way I like to put it is, what if someone were using your name to describe someone they thought was stupid or annoying? Just replace your name with the “R” word in one of those instances. While the person is not referring to you specifically and says, “Oh, I’m not saying it to offend *you*,” you are offended because it’s your name. It just doesn’t make you feel very good. It’s the same thing when people use the word “gay” in a derogatory way. Think about how that would make you feel if you were gay and someone were using part of your identity to make fun of someone else. It’s hurtful.

  8. evanscove

    A good reminder! Thank you.

    It’s bad enough hearing kids talk that way, but it really rankles to hear adults doing it. That word has become, as you point out, an expression of pure contempt. Even though it may have originally been a technical term (as were words such as moron and cretin), it is now usually used simply as an insult.

    Remember the Bible’s admonitions to let your speech be for edification and not tearing people down. It all comes down to just being charitable to others, even with your words.


  9. I totally agree with you. In recent years I have worked very hard to avoid derogatory terms describing people because I think it is a bad habit to blame somebody else for our own frustrations. Like the hotel clerk who didn’t give somebody the service they should have. Things are what they are. People are what they are. As long as nobody gets in my face over something, I think it is better to cut the person slack because only God knows their heart.

  10. 🙂 Thank you for sharing this. I spent 4 years working with adults with a wide spectrum of learning disabilities (some with additional physical disabilities). When taking them out and about, I was angry and hurt by some of the looks, the name calling (on occasion) and attitude by some (thankfully a minority).

    I have no patience for it.

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