When My Teacher Used the R-Word Synonymously With the Special Needs Community


The movements that promote eliminating variations of the R-word have an overwhelmingly apparent presence on social media. In fact, these terms had been deemed politically incorrect and were erased from federal health, education and labor policy the moment President Obama signed Rosa’s Law all the way back in 2010. Moving forward in time, the DSM-5 left the term out and replaced it with “intellectual disability.” This, along with other, more appropriate terms, have replaced the derogatory description, leaving behind the pity, disgust and inferiority that had labeled the special needs community prior to this uproar.

Article after article views the R-word as outdated, politically incorrect, and hurtful to those with special needs and their families. Once the term was replaced, we took a step towards recognizing the capabilities of individuals who have special needs and began to include them in society, instead of banishing them to institutions and a segregated lifestyle.

There are social media posts, blogs and videos with the mission of throwing rocks at those who use the word so freely, yet the individuals who seem most unaware in my eyes are out-of-date educators. I feel these are educators who do not take the phrase life-long learners to its utmost importance and fail to understand the hurt that ripples from the usage of such words.

I sat with shock radiating from my face when I heard my teacher, an expert in his field, continuously use the R-word synonymously with special needs. After his hurtful statements, the following thought remained in my mind:

You are a teacher who is teaching future educators that the R-word is an appropriate term to use.

How is it that society has been trying to reach the naive, unknowing youth who uses the R-word for anything he deems “worthless,” yet the older educators seem to have been left blinded by their “expertise” in education? The term life-long learner is taught in textbooks, discussing how it is a teacher’s job to research and stay up to date with current findings.

Yet here I sit, a few days after that disappointing classroom experience. Still ruminating about the moment the teacher’s seemingly professional lesson used words that hit me in the face.

There is still more to teach.

There is still more to learn.

After all, we all are, life-long learners.

young boy in hoodie in black and white photo
Arielle’s younger brother.

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