Despite Increased Awareness, the R-Word is Alive and Well


I am not one who offends easily, nor do I consider myself overly-sensitive. However, there are some words that should simply be extinguished from our vernacular. "Retard" is one of them. 

Earlier this week, I was out shopping and overheard a young girl use the term in passing and it honestly bothered me a great deal. As the father of a child with autism, I’ve learned over the years that words and labels matter and many times, they can have devastating consequences. 

The R-word is almost always used as a pejorative and stems from the longer, medically acceptable term "mental retardation," typically describing someone who has an IQ below 70. But like many other words in the English language, it has evolved over the years and is often used in a derogatory manner. When used improperly, "retard" and "retarded" simply reinforce stereotypes of those with emotional and intellectual disabilities and degrade them as human beings in the process.

The shopping incident got me thinking all week about the topic, so out of curiosity, I decided to do a search on Twitter to see how many messages contained the term. Not surprisingly, a flood of results came up just in the last few days, many from teens and young adults who simply don’t (but should) know better. However, I also found some other tweets from older adults as well, some with a large number of followers:

There were countless others, but these examples are a stark reminder that our society still has a long way to go in educating the public that the r-word is no longer an acceptable term to use, even in jest.

To help shed light on this subject, The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation (in conjunction with Best Buddies and the Special Olympics) has created a Web site and campaign for the sole purpose of abolishing the term once and for all. Established in 2008, has a stated mission to "Spread the Word to End the Word ®." The site accepts online pledges from individuals of all ages, who affirm that they will "support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities." To date, there have been over 235,000 submissions.

It’s heartening to see that this organization, and others like it, are proactively doing something about this issue. However, as many people prove by their tweets and conversations, we still have a long way to go.