The Mighty Logo

We Need to Talk About Disability Slurs

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Words have power; from the very first time that we learn to use them in order to convey meaning, we gain an invaluable asset — for better or for worse — in the form of language. The power of language is infinite: It can be used to communicate the most basic of human needs, arranged into intricate works of expression, or used to forge connections between two people.

In addition to the formidable amount of good uses it has, language can also be deployed for nefarious purposes. From insults to intentional misquotes and manipulations, there are several ways to use this means of communication in order to cause offense — intentional or otherwise.

The English language is constantly evolving. It is a living tapestry that illustrates a rich history full of different influential events and time periods. The history of Britain is evident in words borrowed from the French, words that were first used by Vikings, and words with Germanic origins, to name a few. We use our great catalog of words to describe the world as we know it. We label people, places and objects in an attempt to process the huge amount of information we take in each day.

Sometimes, as our language evolves, we identify select words within our national vocabulary as being those that could cause harm to our linguistic dignity. When the U.K. suffers through times of tension, the language we use to describe society whilst it is in turmoil can become akin to vitriol. Many examples of these contentious words have been used to insult and belittle ethnic minorities, especially during eras that were marked by the arrival of many new citizens to Britain from places such as the Caribbean, the West Indies and various parts of Asia.

For many years, words such as the n-word have been rightly ousted by a vast majority of Britons. A word such as this serves no purpose other than to dehumanize and humiliate any unwilling target. This, and many labels like it, have been granted the infamy they deserve (though unfortunately, they are still sometimes used by individuals spreading hate).

However, despite our ability as a society to understand and recognize the power of slurs, some still remain in regular use, with the consequences of said use often going unnoticed.

It’s time to talk about our relationship with disability slurs.

Let’s start with the r-word. Like many disability slurs, the word r****d was born from medical terminology. Its parent term, mental retardation, is the predecessor to intellectual disability. Although both refer to “limited intellectual ability,” it is widely understood that the former term now carries offensive connotations. By nature, medical diagnoses are not intended to demean. Rather, they are ascribed to a patient in order to help them on their journey towards a life that is suited to their needs and aspirations.

This is where the medical term and the slur differ massively. The r-word is used in place of the word “stupid.” It is used in order to embarrass. This is not unlike another word of this kind: s*****c. Deriving from the word spasticity, which refers to the stiffening of muscles often seen in people with cerebral palsy (such as myself), this word is also used interchangeably with insults that undermine intelligence.

Unlike other slurs, these words are often thrown around with little or no consequence. They are used frequently without a second thought and without awareness. As a woman in her 20s, it crushes me to hear these words spoken so freely. The disability that I, my brother and millions of other people have around the world should not have its title twisted and appropriated in order to mean something that is “less than.”

Intelligence is subjective. It is not only determined by brain function. Intelligence can be interpreted through social interactions, heard in the sharp wit of my older sibling’s sense of humor (a man who has an intellectual disability), and seen inside those who have a remarkable ability to read the emotions of others. By allowing these slurs to be used without any understanding of their meaning, we as a society are allowing certain disabilities to be used as the punchline of a cheap joke, rather than seeing those who have these disabilities as fully-formed, nuanced people.

It’s high time that we leave these insults behind. If language must be bent in order to cause offense to others, then let it be done so without the use of words that only exist in order to strip a number of already mistreated minorities of what little dignity they have fought so hard to retain.

So, to those of you who use these slurs: I hope you understand where they came from, and why they sting so much in the ears of people with disabilities and their allies. Thank you for taking the time to listen.

I look forward to a future where language is no longer used in order to harm others, but is instead used to build bridges, fill books, and craft jokes that are actually funny!

Getty image by Ralph Renz.

Originally published: August 16, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home