Monday, October 26, 2015

Living in a World with That Word

Last week my exhausted husband and I decided to have a movie night. Our two-year-old son Joshua was recovering from having his tonsils and adenoids removed, and it had been a rough few days to say the least. So we made popcorn in the microwave, settled onto the couch, and rented a free movie off our DVR.

The movie was terrible. Oh, my goodness, just dreadful. It was supposed to be a comedy, but it was one of the laziest things I’ve seen in a long time. Fat jokes, fart jokes, and f-bombs seemed to be the screenwriters’ constant fallbacks for cheap comedy. But those weren’t what stuck in my memory from this awful movie.

What stuck was when one character asked another, “What are you, [expletive] retarded?”


Here’s what I have to say about That Word, which offends me more than all the four-letter words you could cram into a sentence. It’s outdated. It’s degrading. It’s ignorant. It’s heartless. And it is certainly not funny.

As a writer and educator, I value and encourage the use of a rich variety of words in our language, as well as the right to use them freely and openly. Yes, fellow citizens, you are free to use the R-word, just like you can use the N-word or the F-word to describe someone.
But there is a difference between “can” and “should.”

The terminology used to refer to individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities has evolved over more than a century of modern medicine.  Past terms included words like "idiot," "imbecile," and "moron." Yes, those words were used in medical textbooks! 

And over time, those words in turn fell onto what's called the "euphemism treadmill," meaning that terms originally meant as medical classifications were twisted and brought into common use as insults. Eventually, some of the words lost enough of their original meaning to no longer be widely thought of as offensive or derogatory to people with disabilities.

"Mental retardation/mentally retarded" was introduced in the twentieth century to replace "idiot" and "moron" because it had no such negative connotations. However, it didn't take too long for various forms of the R-word to get tossed onto the euphemism treadmill and used as insults. 

It's not just about That Word being used to refer to someone with a disability, though that is despicable. It's also about using it as a synonym for "stupid," "annoying," or "worthless." It takes an outdated medical term for people who are often already vulnerable and marginalized and tells the world that it is an insult to be compared to one of them.

Fortunately, our society's response to the use of the R-word has evolved, alongside improvements in the American mental healthcare system and in the societal treatment of individuals with disabilities. Rather than let it settle in, campaigns such as Spread the Word to End the Word (in which my sister Julianne has been an enthusiastic, active participant) have sought to excise the R-word from our national vocabulary. 

And in 2010, President Obama signed into law S.2781, also known as Rosa's Law, which removes the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from all federal policies, replacing them with the person-first language of "individual with an intellectual disability."

Yet, in lunchrooms, chat rooms, and even boardrooms, the R-word persists.


“Well, what about this euphemism treadmill?” the more cynical among you might ask. Isn’t it only a matter of time before the R-word becomes outdated enough to be used relatively innocuously, like “moron” and “idiot,” and something else becomes the new word to be offended by? Is this obsession with political correctness just our cover for being too sensitive?

In other words, does this fight over a word really matter?

I have two answers for that.

The first is not my own. It’s a letter penned by an outstanding young man named John Franklin Stephens back in 2012; I recommend following the link to read his clear and gracious words. John (who, like my son Joshua, has Down syndrome) wrote an open letter to address a political pundit’s use of the R-word during the presidential campaign.

In his letter John explained the painful, belittling effects of That Word: “You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult…”

Whether you call someone with an actual intellectual disability by the R-word or use it to compare a person or situation to them, it makes no difference. It hurts. It hurts people who are statistically among our society’s most vulnerable, along with the people who love them.

Why on earth would you still want to use a word that does that?

That brings me to my second answer.

There are parents who say things like, “Oh, I dread the day she starts kindergarten!” or “I dread the day he gets his license.”

Want to know which day I dread?

I dread the day my son comes home from school in tears and asks me why someone called him That Word.

So yes, this fight over a word really matters.


Our house is a safe zone—my husband and I will do everything in our power to make sure our son never hears that word here. The same goes for our family gatherings, play dates, and birthday parties. But That Word is still out in the world, and deep down I know that it’s only a matter of time until Josh hears it at the grocery store, or at school, or at the park, and realizes what it means.

It’s only a matter of time until someone uses it as a weapon against my child’s ears. That Word is a ticking time-bomb strapped to a parent’s heart.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are three simple things you can do that would spare my heart and the heart of my little boy, along with the hearts of countless other parents, children, siblings, friends, and neighbors. Are you willing to do three simple things for all of us?

  1. Don’t use the R-word. There’s just no reason to do it. Our beautiful language is full of other descriptors, exclamations, and insults. Use one of them. The R-word isn’t funny, appropriate, or even medically accurate. Using it only makes you seem like a person who doesn’t care about others, and if you’ve read this far, I’m hoping that you do care.
  2. If you have children, or students, or other little ones in your care, teach them not to use the R-word. And hold them to it. If you wouldn’t let your five-year-old use the N-word, then why would you let them use the R-word? By teaching them that some words are too hurtful to use, you’re not teaching them to repress their thoughts or be afraid to share their opinions. You’re simply teaching them to care about others.
  3. If you hear the R-word, stop it in its tracks. This is the tough one—one I still struggle with, as a mild-mannered, non-confrontational person. But it’s very important. If a child on the playground uses it, if a server at a restaurant uses it, even if your drill sergeant uses it (yes, follow the link; it really happened!)—call it out. Say to that person some variant of, “Hold up. That word hurts someone I love, and it hurts me too. In the future, please don’t use it.” Hopefully you will be met with an apology and can promptly let the matter drop. If you’re met with a sneer or a snarky response, then you will at least know that you tried.

(Note: If you are in a situation where you think it would be unsafe to do this, then please just walk away. The sad truth is that you can’t win ‘em all, and I wouldn’t want you to get injured trying.)

Here’s why #3 is so important to me. On the inevitable day that my son comes home from school after hearing the R-word, his recounting to me won’t have to end in tears. I can hope that it will end with, “But my friend stuck up for me, and then I felt better.”

We live in an imperfect world. That Word will never be truly banished from our cultural lexicon. There will still be terrible movies that try to play it off as humor, rude drivers who throw it out when you take "their" parking space, and otherwise-wonderful people who use it completely unintentionally, not realizing the effect it has. 

But I can live with all of those frustrating, hurtful things if I know that we're working for something better. We can hold ourselves to a higher standard with the words we choose. We can speak with care and compassion. We can reject contempt and judgment. And if we teach our children to do that, then they will have a better world.

So please, teach those around you that the R-word is never okay. Your child could be the one that saves my child's heart. Thank you.