Goodbye and Good Riddance to the R-Word

Our culture is finally starting to clue in: "retarded" is increasingly off-limits as a casual pejorative. This mindset shift is the result of activism like The R-Word campaign, and as evidenced by last week's epsiode of Glee, it's taking hold. As I wrote for BlogHer:
The word "retarded" was never mentioned once, not even with regards to Becky [who has Down syndrome], even though Glee's writers sub-specialize in creative taunting. I don't know if the writers sidestepped the term because of anti-r-word activism or because it is increasingly simply not done, but it was noticeably absent. Let's hope this omission represents a cultural trend on the upswing.
This is not to say it's not used. But it's also increasingly not tolerated. My friend Emily recently came across a website called "Retarded in Love," and was not alone in letting the blogger know she didn't appreciate her use of the term:
It would be thoughtful of you to change the title of your blog…yes, this probably comes across as uptight oldness or just plain uptight, but people who actually are labeled as retarded cannot defend themselves when someone uses this term for amusement. While the word itself should not be used as a label, it is still, and we all know exactly what it means. It’s painful to people who love someone who is intellectually disabled to see a word like this used for humor by someone who is patently not intellectually disabled. If you must use a term that refers to cognitive deficiency as a result of being overwhelmed by love or made a fool of by love, I suggest “Stupid, ” as in “Stupid in Love.” God knows that’s enough of a norm to avoid being offensive.
Are there circumstances where using the r-word is acceptable? Parents and advocates in the disability and special needs communities have been known to take advantage of its shock value, to effect change, precisely because it's now taboo. In the new collection My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities (in which Jennyalice and I both have stories, which I had to read slowly because almost every story made me cry with knowing, helpless rage, and which you should distribute widely as a holiday gift), Chloe Eudaly describes the desperation that drove her to use the word on her son Henry's transition team -- they wanted to put her previously happily included son in an inappropriate placement: a segregated special ed classroom (you know, like Leo's):
...sensing impending defeat, I dropped the R-bomb ... I pointed out that the best way to learn a language or skill was immersion, and what the self-contained classroom was but retarded immersion?
Or, as another Short Bus author Amber Taylor wrote about her son Brave, who has Down syndrome:
We would get an array of questions and comments along the lines of "When are you going to institutionalize him" and ... "Why isn't he walking yet?" To which I would reply, in my most June Cleaver sort of voice, "Because he's retarded, you ass!" I blurt it out in that way because when a person is being a jerk, and I say "special" or "has needs," "Down syndrome," et cetera, it doesn't seem to sink in. When I blurt out "he's retarded," they get all red-faced and embarrassed, and I enjoy their discomfort.
And finally, there are those who, like The Pioneer Woman, have spent their lives loving someone with cognitive or developmental challenges, and use the word in a purely descriptive fashion. While I wish PW would update her terminology, as I said in that same Glee post:
...I know that The Pioneer Woman uses the word 'retarded,' but her affectionate descriptions of [her brother] Mike -- as just another complicated person who happens to have developmental challenges -- temper her non-malicious use of an outdated label.
The r-word is still around, but it's on its way out. You can help extinguish negative r-word behavior, by politely pointing out its inappropriateness while anticipating some defensiveness. I know you're all strong good smart people with nice thick skin, who understand how important it is to stand up for people like Leo who can't defend themselves. My thanks, in advance.


  1. elaine park8:10 PM

    So much for free speech!

  2. Asking people to rethink their word choices is somehow against free speech?

  3. I'd hate to lose the verb and noun forms of "retard", having the sense of slow down, delay, or impede. Sometimes it is the only word that fits in a sentence.

    But I'm all for campaigning against the word used as a slangy, disparaging descriptor of people or of human behavior. And I'm all for rebuking those who use it that way.

  4. Liz, this is all about your second paragraph and not about the first. As I wrote to my Devil's advocate friend Elaine Park offline:

    ...a lot of people still don't realize the term is offensive, and why. Our culture is shifting away from using it casually, and I'm glad. In the same way I'm glad most people we know no longer have to be told why Billy Crystal's earlier skits about "did you ever notice how black people go to the movies and talk to the screen out loud?" are uncool.

  5. I was kind of discombobulated by what Elaine wrote.

    After I posted my previous comment, I went away to do other things and then I thought, "Didn't I write about that before?" Why yes --I've been on the r-word campaign since 2008


    In my usual rather obsessive way, lots of links to others who signed on to the campaign.

  6. Anonymous6:57 AM

    This posr reminded me of a recent article I read about the use of the word "autistic" in France as a derogatory word used against your political opponent. Unfortunately ignorance is not just the purview of the uneducated.

    I would also like to interject on the "free speech" issue. While technically you may be entitled to use any language you wish, society puts limits on all forms of speech. A quick perusal of the history of the first amendment would help in understanding that ubiquitous pit. Also just because you can say something does not mean you should. As Squid says, its a matter of word choice. I would also like to add its also a metter of true intelligence to understand that words do matter.

  7. I understand bristling at the use of the 'r-word' in a pejorative sense, but I don't understand taking issue with it as an honest descriptive word (as with Pioneer Woman). It is still a part of the DSM-IV after all.

  8. Hey Grace! I'm glad you asked. Even though PW's use is understandable (if, again, outdated), other people may justify using it offensively (e.g., "that movie was so retarded") by saying "But the Pioneer Woman says 'retarded'!"

  9. I'd comment but it looks as if you've tackled all the bases.

  10. This is definitely one of those issues where I know where I stand on it now that I have a child who likely is the 'r-word,' but I've not yet gotten my courage up to relay that to people around me. I get angry at myself after the fact for not thoughtfully and gently reminding people of how hurtful that word is. Take my very own father, for instance...several months ago he referred to a distant cousin who tried to make contact with him after seeing him at a 50th reunion. My skeptical father assumed this cousin had ill intentions and wanted something from him. He finalized his diatribe with...'Retard.' I sat there, mouth agape, crazy butterflies swirling in my stomach, and felt like time stopped for a moment. And yet, just like that, we all continued on our merry way as though it hadn't occurred. I think about this incident frequently and wish I'd done something differently as a response. Ugh.

  11. This post has been included in a linkspam at access-fandom. Thank you!

  12. Deb, imagine us all standing behind you next time, backing you up. And ROAR if you need to.

    Really amazing discussion that touches on the r-word several times, from Schmutzie (thanks to Jenijen for telling me about her):


    I sort of wish we could assign someone to blog their thoughts on the r-word every month. Feel free to volunteer!

  13. I still remember the day that someone pointed it out to me - what my friends and I were saying. It was in college, and she was training to be a special ed teacher. My friends rolled their eyes at her, but it really hit home with me, a future pediatrician, and I don't think I've used the word pejoratively since.

  14. And in your future position, you can influence parents' terminology. Excellent! Always nice to hear from you, Sara. I hope you are well.

  15. I really don't get it. I'm not trying to be obtuse, but I don't understand whats wrong with the word as a descriptor. Not as slang, but as a descriptor of actual medical condition.

  16. Anonymous10:13 AM

    I have adoptive brothers who are ethnically different than myself. If I used the same train of thought that because I'm related, I have the right to use whatever descriptive word I want to reiterate their race, it wouldn't be acceptable. It shouldn't work the same with the term, "retard".


Respectful disagreement encouraged.