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Why I Believe It’s Time to Give the R-Word a Rest

Words matter.

The right word can inspire. The wrong word can antagonize. One word can hurt millions of people.

I’ve often heard the R-word used casually as a put-down. Friends and colleagues have used this word. A few realize a little too late that it is probably especially offensive to me. I hear teenagers dropping it as frequently as the f-word.

Sadly, I’ve also heard it used to directly ridicule individuals with intellectual disabilities.

woman and boy on bike
Kim and her son.

I’m not sure which is worse — the casual use of the word as an insult or the intentional use of the word to be cruel to someone who might not understand your invective. As the parent of a child with significant challenges, I feel the pain of such words on his behalf. It makes it clear just how daunting the future may be for people like him.

The Special Olympics campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word” was launched eight years ago to make people stop and think about their hurtful and disparaging use of the word “retarded.” It is just one part of the Special Olympics’ vision of a world where everyone matters and is accepted and valued.

boy on bike
Kim’s son.

When the campaign first launched, I posted about it on my Facebook page — Facebook, incidentally, has received a lot of flack in the past for allowing groups formed for the express purpose of mocking disabled people — and one friend responded that “…it is time to give this word a rest. It is a poor choice of a word from another era, and the meaning it represents has become bastardized and watered down. We should just get rid of it.” He’s right.

The R-word campaign is about more than just stopping the use of an offensive word. It’s about changing attitudes. It’s about respect. It’s about understanding what it means to have a disability. We all lose when we diminish all that people with disabilities have to offer.

How we react to people who are “different” from us, especially those who may be more vulnerable, says so much about who we are. My upbringing by parents who always told me to be a champion for others helped prepare me for the world of special needs, but I’ve learned a lot about myself since then, too. And there is so much more to know. My son will guide the way.

boy standing in front of lighthouse
Kim’s son.

Spread the Word to End the Word! You can head here to pledge to stop using the R-word. It’s a step toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.

A version of this post first appeared in The Southampton Press.

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