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Yes, Using the R-Word Is a Big Deal

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Once upon a time, babies, children and adults were diagnosed as “mentally retarded.” They were thrown into mental institutions. Parents, siblings and spouses were told there was no hope for those they loved who were given that label. It was often, quite bluntly, a death sentence.

That time really wasn’t all that long ago.

As we have grown to accept and learn how to better treat or care for those who have these diagnoses, the medical language has changed. The words “mental retardation” have been replaced more recently with words like “intellectual disability” and “developmentally delayed.” Those new words are a much more accurate description of what life is like for people who have those diagnoses.

Unfortunately the sarcastic use of the word “retard” has held out. It was adopted as a slur, essentially used to insult someone or something by comparing them to someone with an intellectual disability.

Confession — I used to say things like “that’s r*******” a lot. One of my earliest roommates used to charge me 25¢ every time I used the word. I’m pretty sure she would have collected $5 a week from me if I had ever actually paid her.

At the time, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. I didn’t mean it as an insult to people with disabilities, it was simply a word I grew up using. But newsflash? It doesn’t matter if I meant it “that way” or not. The word is insulting based on its origin.

We wouldn’t accept an argument like that to normalize other slurs. Racial slurs, ethnic slurs, slurs about someone’s sexual orientation or their religion — it doesn’t matter where or how you learned it, but it does matter that it’s insulting to the people it impacts. It doesn’t matter how deeply embedded into your mindset and language it is. What matters is that it’s hurtful to an entire population of people. People like my son AJ, who has Down syndrome.

We may have learned some bad behaviors in the past, myself included. Sometimes those things are even so ingrained that we don’t always catch them before they’re out of our mouths. But that doesn’t mean you can’t actively work to stop using words that cause harm, and educate yourself and others about the why behind the movement to end the usage of the “r-word.”

This story originally appeared on Aaron and Amber’s Family blog.

Originally published: December 26, 2019
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