The Whole Story on the “R-Word”

I remember the first time in my life that the “R-word” gave me pause.

It was two years ago — I was working in advertising as a writer. I was in the passenger seat of a client’s car, we were headed to lunch on a sunny day — and I can remember the way the sunlight flooded in through the sun roof.

My client was chatting about something work-related — and, in a moment of annoyance about someone or something, she said, “He’s so retarded.”

It’s a small moment in life, really, one that is usually forgotten as soon as it passes — but I can remember my thoughts as a new mom to a 1-year-old with Down syndrome. I thought to myself: “I think that word is supposed to be offensive to me now.” And knowing that my client knew that my child had “special needs,” I thought: “And I think other people are supposed to be more sensitive about it now, too.”

This was an honest moment — because truthfully, I wasn’t overly thoughtful about the “R-word” at the time.

I knew that my client adored my daughter, Kate. She would jump in front of a bus for her, climb a mountain for her, sing her praises from the rooftop — and after all, she wasn’t talking about Kate when she used the word “retarded,” she was talking about someone else — someone who didn’t have intellectual disabilities. I knew that she used this word as a habit, as casually as saying something “doesn’t make sense.” I knew that she would never say something derogatory about a person who actually had an intellectual disability — and that the word was so disassociated for her that it had almost taken on a new meaning. But still, something nagged at me.

As a child of the 80’s, I heard the R-word a lot.

Used on playgrounds, in classrooms, in movies.  It was similar to other words that evolved from purely descriptive statements (about religion or sexual preference or otherwise) into casual put-downs.

I was never a user of these words, and in retrospect did have a special sensitivity to them — but I also never thought about the silent victims of these words. The people who may not even be a part of the conversation: the onlookers, the over-hearers, the victims that know these “slam” words are the same ones used to describe aspects of them.

And truthfully, I just hadn’t ever put much thought into it.

Then, last week, I did.

I read a powerful article called I Am the Person You Hurt When You Say the R-Word by John Stevens, Special Olympics Global Messenger. John has Down syndrome and a powerful perspective.

John says:

To all of you who use it, let me say it one more time, THE R-WORD HURTS. You don’t have to aim the word directly at me to hurt me and millions of others like me who live with an intellectual disability. Every time a person uses the r-word, no matter who it is aimed at, it says to those who hear it that it is okay to use it. That’s how a slur becomes more and more common. That’s how people like me get to hear it over and over, even when you think we aren’t listening.

So, why am I hurt when I hear “retard.” Let’s face it, nobody uses the word as a term of praise. At best, it is used as another way of saying “stupid” or “loser.” At worst, it is aimed directly at me as a way to label me as an outcast — a thing, not a person. I am not stupid. I am not a loser. I am not a thing. I am a person.

It hurts me to think that people assume that I am less than a whole person. That is what is so awful about slurs. They are intended to make their target seem smaller, less of a person. People who live with an intellectual disability do not have an easy life. We have to fight to understand what the rest of you take for granted. We fight for education. We fight to live among the rest of you. We struggle to make friends. We often are ignored, even when we have something to say. We fight so hard to be seen as whole people. It hurts so much, after all that struggle, to hear you casually use a term that means that you assume we are less than whole.

When I read this, I pictured Kate overhearing someone use the “R-word” as an insult — even if it wasn’t directed at her. I remembered a time I heard a friend refer to an awkward-looking person as looking “Downsy.” I thought about the times I overheard people pretending to speak with a speech impediment if they were trying to act confused or unintelligent. And I realized the profound truth of John’s words.

All of these things are done in derogatory jest because our world all-too-often sees the people these words, phrases and actions are associated with as less than whole. Less than ideal. Less than.

So what’s the whole story on ending the “R-word”?

It’s more than just an attempt to be overly politically correct.

Or overly-sensitive.

Or overly-defensive.

The whole story is that by using the word we are contributing to the idea that someone else is worth less. And more specifically, that the group of people from whom the phrase originated are worth less.

I am still understanding of my well-meaning friends who use the word thoughtlessly (as I said, I hadn’t thought about it too much myself). But thoughtlessness from the mouth of the “user” does not change the effect on the victims — who, in a world where we’re all fighting to be seen as whole and valuable, are all of us.



  1. Maile Parker

    As a middle school social studies teacher, I hear this word too frequently, and it is banned from my classroom. I teach my students that throughout history, labels have been a death sentence for some. When I say this, they are quick to identify with the Holocaust. But it stuns my students to learn about our own nation’s recent history of wheeling infants born with special needs to a corner of the hospital nursery to die. My mother’s cousin, Nancy, was the first child born with Down syndrome in Hawai’i to live. My auntie Ruthie was told that there was no place for her daughter, that she’d have no future, and that it would be in her best interest to leave her to die. Nancy is a testament to her mother’s love, and a little over 50 years later, she is doing well.

    • Brad


      Thank you. Thanks for educating your students and for sharing the story of your mother’s cousin. My own parents were ‘consulted’ by a doctor in the mid-60’s about my older brother’s condition. The doc insisted that Greg would never develop beyond that of a small child; he’d never walk, he’d never talk, he would always be a burden. Putting him in an institution and forgetting about him was the best thing they could do. My folks didn’t give that advice a moment’s though and chose to give Greg the loving, nurturing environment he deserved. He not only walked, but ran, leaned to ride a bike, graduated high school, and is an intelligent, articulate 50 year old adult now who has far surpassed the expectations of most people.

  2. JanetMSD

    EXCELLENT article! As a mom whose younger son is I/DD the “word” grates deeply when I hear it. It is still common in legal language. My son has some limitations but has so many gifts and graces it amazes me every day — long distance runner, hard worker, sense of humor, great with children, empathetic and concerned about the elderly.
    I am also an aunt to an amazing young girl who lives with Downs Syndrome. Every time I am around her I shake my head in awe of all she has overcome physically and how far she is progressing mentally. WOW!

  3. unclesamonmars

    People are living their lives waiting to be offended. Please use your energy to take care of a real problem instead of being so offended by a word. It’s sad and a indicatorf of how we are a society of whiners. Let the bashing of my comments begin.

    • Marcia


      Well, if you think this way then I sure hope that you don’t know anyone who has special needs, maybe you wouldn’t think this way if you did.. And if you do, I sure hope they wise up to your view on this derogatory word and cut you out of their lives. But knowing how innocent and precious they are, I doubt they would think to do such a thing. But I sure wouldn’t hesitate.

      To this blogger and MANY others in this society, we are offended by this word and RIGHTFULLY so. We r people w/ special needs, loved ones of people w/ special needs, we just plain have a heart and care for others’ feelings. You seem to not think much of these people at all and they apparently are disregarded by you, like much of society does to this particular group of people. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to look at some of these faces of people w/ special needs, see inside their hearts and souls, feel their innocence! And then see if you can tell us again how we’re so wrong to be ‘offended by a word.’ and that those who despise this word ‘are a society of whiners’…

    • Jack's mom


      That’s where you have it wrong. The people offended by this word aren’t living their lives waiting to be offended. They are struggling to do every tasks that you take for granted. Most of them won’t be able to read this post of even stand up for themselves. That task is left to their loved ones, those of us who take care of people with intellectual disabilities because they are unable to fully care for themselves.

      If anyone is living their lives waiting to be offended it is you.

    • Another Momma

      Perhaps some people do live their lives waiting to be offended. But why do some live their lives to offend? You are entitled to your opinion. But why do you need to seek out the personal blog of a parent with a child with developmental differences to share it? Are we a society of whiners? Some say that. But it is even sadder that there is a faction of our society which is callous and hurtful to those needing care and protection. Protecting the “needy” is a REAL problem, which obviously some care about. Is not using an offensive word really going to infringe on your rights so much that you need to insult those with an opinion different than yours? Who’s the whiner now?

  4. Marcia

    thank you for writing this blog. it was honest, relatable, and i hope helpful to those that use it or hear it and maybe it will change them for the better :).. i am a loved one and i cringe when i hear it. all i think of is my little brother who hears it constantly, more than he wants to let me know i’m sure. but the kids aren’t the only ones who say it. i had a couple friends in college 10 yrs ago who said it IN FRONT OF my little brother, he was standing right next to one of them! they said it, and he turned around to look at me, confused and bothered. he knows very well that it’s a bad word and hurtful to him b/c it targets him. my social anxiety at the time was too severe for me to get the courage to speak up at that moment, but i spoke up later and said they can’t say that word around me ever again. as of this moment, we’re not friends anymore so idk if they still say it or not, but for the remainder of our friendships, they didn’t say it again around me. but these friends have worked w/ kids w/ special needs! their ignorance and disregard for these people even tho they worked w/ them, baffled the hell outta me. how can u be around anyone w/ special needs and still say that horrible word so nonchalantly? it makes no sense to me. anyway, i could go on and on lol but i’ll spare u. again, THANK YOU.

  5. ProudGrandmother

    Oh dear dear unclesamonmar, you just are one of those people that want to stir that pot. You certainly aren’t one of those people that believe words don’t hold power are you ? Is it incomprehensible to you that a person can not be emotional abused and beaten down by words ? A child does not have low self esteem by being called dumb, stupid, useless ? A woman isn’t emotionally scarred by the once loving spouse by repeatededly being called lazy, ugly, bitch, worthless ?

    Imagine being a mom, and one glorious day having her daughter give birth to a typical baby boy. Without warning, this tiny little being arrives looking nothing like any newborn we’d ever seen. Terrified when you hear the name of some rare syndrome, not knowing how it affects this new member of the family. I google the syndrome and up pops common characteristics, hooray.. Now I can empower myself with knowledge. Reading through the list, mentally ticking things off as present, but acceptable … Yippee !! Until midway now I read the words moderate to severe mental retardation .. Ouch, sting in my eyes, punch in my gut. Why ?? Why would I have a physical reaction to THOSE words ??? Because of how the word is USED over and over, my entire life by people that are generally my friends, family, school mates. As written, the implication of less than, impaired, unacceptable, unwanted, abnormal … My grandson is NONE of those things, he’s about the most adorable, happy, healthy little boy I know. Maybe he IS mentally delayed. But shame on ME for not wanting to become one of those whiners. Hear me ROAR instead. The R word is offensive !!! STOP using it, and find something more useful to do on the internet than be the fly in the ointment !

  6. Tragic Society

    To see the real tragedy of our society look at the comment from unclesamonmars. The real tragedy is that it is every man/woman for him/her self and we think we can say or do anything we want to be hurtful. And, when we hear hurtful words (because sometimes the truth hurts but needs to be said) there is no reflection just reaction (or as my wife the teach says, “respond don’t react”). There is no pulling ourselves together anymore and using words like the “r” word aren’t the real root of the problem. They are a symptom of our inability to build up or care for our fellow man and a symptom of the deep seated selfishness we now own. I would be the first to say that I am concerned about how far we sometimes carry our offensiveness. But I don’t believe for a minute that this is the case in this article. So many times I, like this author, have had to look past comments to realize the true heart of the person. Did they really mean to offend? Most times the answer is no. Yet I also know that had that person known their comments were hurtful they would never have made them. So what’s the solution? Dialogue. Healthy dialogue like in this article. Not baiting people into arguments and watching their reactions from afar. No, that does none of us any good. Neither does reacting in a harsh manner to those comments. By the way, my family would never use the “r” word because of the slang it has become and are defensive of people with disabilities. Which technically, since no one is perfect, is all of us.

  7. Thank you for your motivational words. I am not sure how anyone could read your article and not feel at all touched by your perspective of why it is important to remove the r-word from everyday speech. During my four years away at school, using inclusive language has been something held at high regard at my University. I have taken that education to heart and tried my best to spread the information to my family members and to the students I am residence advisor for. Just like “unclesamonmars” so eloquently proved to us, there are people in the world that will never truly get it. They will claim that it is just a word and people need to not be so sensitive. And maybe that is true in some cases, maybe we are becoming to sensitive to saying “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays.” Although in no way am I advocating that this is wrong or right, but neither of those greetings is holding negativity. That is why the r-word is different. Sure there are those ignorant individuals out there that use the word without thinking, and without trying to offend anyone with a disability. This is why educating this generation on the issue is important. The word is being used only to hurt and to use in a negative way. So why does the world need to use the r-word badly? There are so many other words out there that could be used without hurting the regard of any beautiful individual who has an intellectual or physical disability.

  8. I’m old enough to remember a public service announcement on TV in the sixties, in which Rose Kennedy urged participation in a project – I think it was Special Olympics, founded by her daughter Eunice. Mrs. Kennedy ended the announcement with the dramatic words, “I am the mother of a retarded child.” Leaving aside the sad and unsettled question of whether her daughter Rosemary was indeed intellectually impaired, it’s interesting how the word “retarded” was perceived fifty years ago compared to now. Today, it reflects ignorance at best and bigotry at worst. Good riddance to it.

  9. I applaud you for advocating for your daughter and the rest of our children and adults that are differently abled (my daughter promotes that terminology). My daughter Kayla is out there every day rallying against the”r word” and showing everyone her abilities. She is trying to get her Associates degree in college and getting ready to take her road test for her license. She amazes me every day but she hates that word and will do anything she can to get people to stop using it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *