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No, the R-Word Is Never Appropriate


When my friend got onto a health and social care course I was so happy for her. My friend had to give up years of her education when she first had her boy, a lovely wonderful autistic boy. I think he played a part in her choosing this career path. Besides her son I am one of her many autistic friends, and she is so dedicated to helping others in difficult and vulnerable situations. She thought this qualification would help her do some real good. She’s so passionate about these issues, it’s part of what makes her such a good friend and mum. So when she came home from college distraught, I was confused at first. She’s tough as old boots, she’s not exactly easily upset so I instantly asked her what was wrong. I couldn’t have been more shocked by her answer.

Her college, a college that runs multiple health and social care, teaching, counseling and child care courses, was supporting the use of and teaching using both the R-word and the S-word (a derogatory word stemming from the word spasm). When she expressed concerns they simply said “it’s appropriate.” Appropriate, they said, as though that word has any place in the world, let alone with the vulnerable people they are training to work with.

They allowed other students to use the words and argued that there is nothing wrong with using them. Other students would use it in front of her and before doing so would often say, “Oh, close your ears, I know you don’t like this word.” Close her ears? As though it was only an issue because she had heard it? And teachers supported that behavior, even when the word was directly used in a derogatory way.

The course protects against the use of any slur or offensive term for every other minority group, religious, cultural, racial, gender and sexuality, yet disabled people are tossed to the side. They don’t cover any ways to be respectful like they do with other minority groups. They don’t educate them in any way about how to communicate and interact with those with disabilities, accessibility issues or neurodiversity. My poor friend couldn’t believe it. All she wanted was to get a chance to help people, especially autistic people and those with learning disabilities, and now she had to sit there watching people being trained for that very purpose, people who would go on to work with vulnerable people like her son, being taught that highly offensive words were appropriate.

I have something to say to the tutors who support these words. You are wrong; it is never appropriate. To use that word is to ignore our history, to ignore our struggle. You may be an educator, but I think you need a bit of education as to what the R-word does to people like me and my friend’s boy. How it supports our mistreatment, how it’s been used to abuse, neglect, and exploit people like us. That word equates us to less than human. It’s derogatory, it’s insensitive, and it shows us exactly how you view us. You are referring to us as sub-normal.

It’s been outdated and an insult for quite some time, first used in a derogatory way in a book by Frank Rooney in 1954 to refer to someone as stupid, unintelligent and worthless. This word carries that toxic history with it, and if you don’t know these origins it’s easy to excuse its use. It’s not just a slang word and it’s far from being the medical term it once was.

Would you protect the use of any other similar word from that time?  Would you protect the use of “pinhead,”  “halfwit” or “skit brain?” Would you call any person with disabilities those things or the far worse equivalents I haven’t mentioned? Would you support the treatment of mentally ill people that word ushered in 500 years ago? I would hope not. If you wouldn’t treat us the way people “diagnosed” with this word were treated or call us any other insulting term, then why use this one? We’ve progressed leaps and bounds in terms of understanding of the brain and in sensitivity since it was first acceptable to use this word, so why continue to use such a cruel, outdated term?

Beyond its historical roots, what of the present? The word is used to this day by those who would limit us, neglect our needs, refuse to help us adapt and sometimes even outright abuse us. This word is hurtful to so many of us on a deep emotional level. It’s not something to be taken lightly. And even if you have that one friend who is OK with the word despite their ties to disability or mental health, that doesn’t mean the rest of us accept its use. If a friend, or a stranger for that matter, told you a word had the power to ruin their day and make them that upset, why would you continue to use it?

This isn’t the dark ages anymore; we know those different to us still have value, are still human. We don’t need such terms to restrain and control and oppress us. When you use that word that’s just what you are doing, oppressing us, declaring us as less worthy of being alive than you. Less worthy as human beings.

The way we treat those with mental differences is moving forward at an amazing pace. People with learning difficulties, autism and neurodiversity are making leaps and bounds in the world. We are contributing to society. We are a huge diverse group of colorful, interesting, talented people. And yet some professionals, educators, even sometimes friends choose to box us in with toxic archaic language. We are the furthest possible thing from backwards.

Thankfully most establishments have recognized it at the very least as a taboo word if not a slur for those with different needs. So look around, look at the world we live in today and the world that found that word acceptable, and think to yourself, which world do you want to live in? And which world are you going to defend.

Getty image by Porchai Soda.