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Confessions of a Former R-Word User

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When I was little, I would tell my mom that when I grew up, I hoped I had a child with special needs. I volunteered at the Special Olympics. I sought out my fellow students with developmental delays. I defended them against bullies. I cried when heartless people were mean to the differently abled.

Yet I also used “retarded” to describe people and situations that were stupid.

I admit it, and it horrifies me.

When I started my first teaching job out of college, my classroom shared a door with the self-contained resource class full of students with IEPs and teacher aides. One day after school, I was having a casual conversation with the terribly handsome special education teacher of that room. We were perched on a couple of the desks, discussing some of the politics of the administration when I said, “I mean, it’s all just so retarded.”

He didn’t condemn me or gasp. He just looked as if someone had smacked him right across the face. I recall nervously laughing and saying, “I should probably stop saying that now that I’m teaching, eh?” To which he kindly and softly replied, “Yes, that would probably be wise.”

Except I didn’t. I just stopped using it in front of him.

Why was I was so wedded to a word? I can’t exactly say. I knew that while I wasn’t being intentionally malicious, it offended some of the people I respected. But was that reason to watch my tongue? Was it just political correctness gone awry? For whatever reason, I persisted in my ignorance for a while longer.

I’d love to tell you there was an epiphany, a clarifying moment of realization where it hit me how wrong-headed and awful my stubborn clinging to such a hateful word really had been. There wasn’t. I cringe when I consider the number of times I said, “That’s so retarded,” or, “Wow, you’re such a retard.” I cringe because I wonder at the number of times my words cut through someone’s heart, or even worse, the number of times my throwing around those words made someone else think it wasn’t that bad or that it was even OK to do so. That nothing was really meant by it.

But I can tell you this: Over time, the more people who gently spoke up, the more hurt faces, the more open and honest conversations, I was able to see just how wrong I was. Adding up the quiet moment a girlfriend told me it hurt her mama’s heart to hear that word, along with some well-placed articles and even the non-judgmental yet direct conversations with trusted friends, all led to a clearer understanding — there was simply no reason to persist in using these hateful words.

Now that I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser, I try to put the same methods into practice. There is no reason for using these words. None. As an English teacher, I can tell you there are far more descriptive and useful adjectives. As someone who knows and loves children with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities, I can tell you it’s hurtful and dehumanizing. As a mother, I can tell you I don’t want my children thinking those words are OK. And as a member of what I like to see as a compassionate society, I can tell you that using these words doesn’t help anyone.

So let’s all work together to eradicate their use. Let’s be kind but honest about the truth: there is no place for these words in a loving world that respects human life.

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.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one secret or truth you wish you could tell others about your experience with disability, disease or illness? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: November 9, 2015
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