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Watch Your Language!: The R-Word

Despite our parents’ efforts to shelter us as we grew up, we’ve been in on those unacceptable “bad words” we weren’t ever supposed to hear for a while now.  We’ve adapted them into our day-to-day language and probably even had professors throw out disclaimers on the first day of class that they’re prone to say “f*ck” every once in awhile. After all, it doesn’t really matter to us at this point in life; we’ve already learned those “bad words” and it’s not like we’re going to forget them anytime soon. 

However, we’ve also become keenly aware of the words that we are certain we can’t use because they are truly hurtful, and won’t be adapted into our vernacular anytime soon.  That kind of language attacks groups of people through their use and, for that reason, is called “hate speech.”  It’s almost strange to think that language can be a form of attack, yet it’s not hard to think of a moment in history when hate speech excluded and degraded people, or even a time when hurtful language made you feel hated by others.  That being said, hate speech is still used.  The word “retarded,” perhaps less recognized as a form of hate speech, is more commonly used than infamous slurs and is a word that we should recognize as equally unacceptable.  

It’s more than a concern for being “politically correct.”  Language that uses a term like “retard(ed)” to degrade others is considered a form of slander and is why hate speech is considered a manifestation of social oppression.  This kind of oppression takes form in the way our society privileges people based on their identity, including aspects of things like their race, age, sexuality and education, including disability, as expressed in the illustration below which showcases the “Axes of Privilege.”  Ableism, discrimination in favor of able-bodied people, is represented among the dichotomies illustrated — privileging able-bodied people over persons with disabilities.

Original Source: “The Gender Question in Education: Theory, Pedagogy and Politics” by A. Diller, B. Houston, K.P.Morgan, and M. Ayim. 1996. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

The “R-Word” attacks persons with intellectual disabilities, even if it’s not plainly directed at them, in the way it singles out a marginalized group of society and describes its worth as being beneath others.  The R-Word’s implied meaning is “to be as stupid as a person with intellectual disabilities,” which equates having a disability to being stupid. The campaign to eliminate the use of the R-Word in everyday speech, Spread the Word to End the Word, says “when ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ are used as synonyms for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.” This explains how the use of the R-Word, even when it’s not directed at a person with disabilities, is still a form of attack against them.

Shouldn’t we strive to do better?  We know of and have experienced times when hurtful speech has had the effect of being “othering” and demeaning.  It is still important to make a conscious effort to eliminate hurtful words that we are too comfortable using for the same reasons we believe that hate speech is unacceptable.  Calling someone “retarded” equates intellectual disability with being stupid, which simply isn’t true. It is hate speech against persons with disabilities.

Bullying and hurtful language lingers in our minds. It makes us wonder, what exactly is so wrong with me to cause someone else to use those words against me?  Identity – how we recognize ourselves in the mirror and choose to express ourselves – is unique onto each individual and is nothing short of something to be proud of.  It’s when we choose to use degrading language that we damage others’ ability to feel confident in themselves and their sense of uniqueness in addition to alienating them and diminishing their worth.  It’s when we respect each other and promote the use of loving language over hateful language that we move towards a society with a foundation of equality.

To learn more and read testimonies, check out www.r-word.com and take the pledge to eliminate the R-Word from our daily language.  Even if you don’t find that you’re perfect at first, recognizing and being conscious of the ways we can improve our language is the first step to better ourselves and our community.

Bagel enthusiast, cat admirer, and linguaphilic feminist from Venus.
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