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“It hurts”: Living with the R-word

Filed by KOSU News in Public Insight Network.
March 10, 2013

Whether on TV, on the radio, or out of the mouth of a friend or colleague, most of us have heard the word “retarded” used in a derogatory way.

A recent campaign by Special Olympics to “spread the word to end the word” has asked people to stop using the word altogether. The campaign calls the word exclusive, offensive and derogatory, and it asks people to pledge to “stop saying the R-word as a starting point toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people”.

To put a human face on this issue, we asked sources in our Public Insight Network for their personal experience with the word and for advice on what words are more useful. Here’s some of what we heard:

Catherine McDonnell-Forney and her brother. "I took this picture when we were waiting in line to go see the Hobbit. My brother is an active member is our community. He is just as deserving of respect as I am or anyone else, regardless of his disability."

Catherine McDonnell-Forney and her brother. “I took this picture when we were waiting in line to go see the Hobbit. My brother is an active member is our community. He is just as deserving of respect as I am or anyone else, regardless of his disability.” (Shared by Catherine McDonnell-Forney)

Catherine McDonnell-Forney from Minneapolis, Minn:

My brother has Down syndrome. I have heard people call him “retarded” in a nasty, NON-medical, making fun of and mocking ways. When people say “well, it IS a medical term”, they are showing their ignorance or, perhaps, shame, that their words and actions are hurtful to others.

It hurts. It hurts people who have developmental disabilities, it hurts their friends, their family and their communities. By using a medical term to describe something as undesirable, stupid, shameful, makes it clear that, to people who use those words, that people with disabilities are less desirable members of the community.

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John Mebane from Huntsville, Ala.:

Unfortunately, I have heard many people use the term “retarded” to refer to people and opinions that they regard as foolish or irrational. This negative connotation (along with an imprecise denotation) clings to the term “retarded” and renders it very harsh. If someone says that my granddaughter, who has Down syndrome, is “developmentally delayed,” I take it as an accurate description of an unfortunate fact. If someone says she is “retarded,” I am hurt.

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Martha Moyer. "Being a senior citizen doesn't release a caregiver from protecting a severely disabled person like my son with autism and IDD."

Martha Moyer. “Being a senior citizen doesn’t release a caregiver from protecting a severely disabled person like my son with autism and IDD.” (Shared by Martha Moyer)

Martha Moyer from Elmendorf, Texas:

I have a son, age 39, who has autism and used to be called retarded but today he has an IDD, which is an intellectual [and developmental] disability. These are all labels. Too many people have been called “retarded” as just a mean way of talking about them. Hopefully attitudes will change now.

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DeeDee Varner from San Diego, Calif.:

My brother was usually enrolled in a school that our family called a “special education” school.

Our family grew up with the term “mentally retarded” or “retarded” for short. Our school referred to those students as M.R. and that acronym had quite a stigma with it. Around home, we only used the term when we were in a sibling dispute.

But as I matured and pursued a teaching credential, the word “retarded” lost its sting for me and it became my personal umbrella word for those who who were special ed students. The more I studied, though, the more I grew to understand that each special ed student has a very unique situation and set of challenges, more so than standard healthy-brained students — who are so very unique themselves. So I began to refrain from using the word, partly because it was becoming “politically incorrect” to use it, and partly because my studies were revealing to me many labels and new nomenclature for specific learning disabilities, etc.

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Carol Henderson from Minneapolis, Minn.:

When I began working in Special Education in the 1970s, the categories were “mild,” “moderate,” and “severe” mental retardation. This was soon considered pejorative and was changed to “developmental delay.” Today the official category is “developmental cognitive delay.”

It is simply rude to call someone “stupid” or “retarded.” That the latter was once used to categorize those with cognitive delays makes it particularly offensive. I don’t know how one mandates courtesy, and I’m quite sure that banning use of a word will not work.

I suggest that people simply exercise empathy and refrain from calling people names. When my children were small, I told them they needed to say what was wrong and what needed changing, that calling someone a name had no effect except to make everyone angry.

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Larkin (Buzz) Lail at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Special Olympics Summer Games at Indiana State University.

Larkin (Buzz) Lail at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Special Olympics Summer Games at Indiana State University. (Shared by Larkin Lail)

Larkin (Buzz) Lail from Elkhart, Ind.:

My involvement with differently capable people is fairly extensive, I serve as board president of Special Olympics Indiana (volunteer). We serve over 11,000 athletes in the state who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. Many of our athletes are my friends. I assure you that the use of the r-word in everyday slang is hurtful, rude and demeaning to each of them.

Rosa’s Law has removed the term “mental retardation” from the Code of Federal Regulations. Alaska recently passed a similar measure. In medicine and education the term is becoming obsolete as well. There is no reason for a person on the street to use the term in any manner, plenty of other more factually correct terms exist and are used by people in the proper context.

Instead, use “differently capable, intellectually or developmentally disabled”. When speaking about a person with a specific disability it should be “person first” manner. Example “a son with Down syndrome” rather than a “Down syndrome boy”. The medical difference does not define or create the person.

>> Share your story: What’s your experience with the “R-word”?

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One Response to ““It hurts”: Living with the R-word”

  1. Glen W. Bays says:

    My view is that the person applying the "R" word to another–particularly a younger–
    person is himself or herself suffering from poor self-evaluation. Especially so if the
    name caller is a parent or close relative. Often passed off as "just joking," the word uttered is likely to do more harm if it is drawn from a disrespected race or class.

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