Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sticks & Stones and the R-Word

Retarded. How many of us have bounced that word around playfully in conversation, or directed it with malice toward someone? We know the adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this simple children’s rhyme might be right and appropriate in some situations, in others it falls woefully short.
For some, the R-word may not dig at our moral psyche as deeply as, say, the dreaded N-word. But in more cases than one might think, it can be just as injuring. In truth, words like ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ can be hurtful – particularly when uttered in contempt or anger. Sometimes the words cut deep when simply used offhandedly or within the ‘schoolyard’ humor context. Perhaps more so. They can be particularly demoralizing when heard over and over again. Just ask someone who’s been on the receiving end.
“Just get over it,” some comment, when one who suffers the ‘unintended’ insult complains. Or, “Grow thicker skin.” Typically, these unsympathetic platitudes come from a person in a privileged position; that is, a person who was not born with or has not suffered disabling condition. Sometimes, offenders truly do not comprehend the magnitude of their slur; it’s for some reason beyond their boundaries of compassion. The mainstreaming of ever-devolving humor in our society and mean-spiritedness of TV celebrity talent show judges may be among the driving forces for growing insensitivity.
Local agencies like Community Inclusive Recreation (CIR) work tirelessly to beat back the stigma and perceptual discrimination associated with physical and mental disabilities. CIR’s efforts to reduce barriers to personal growth and opportunities for vulnerable populations do much to draw attention to and address this issue.

At the national level, lawmakers are putting forth bills that would banish ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ from the legal lexicon, in favor of a more palatable term such as ‘intellectual disability.’ The movement is being spread across the country by Special Olympics, which is conducting an ‘R-word’ campaign and has been underway for about three years, according to reports. The jury is out on whether or not the R-word campaign will achieve its goal.
The NAACP attempted a similar campaign around the N-word. A few years ago, the civil rights organization conducted a much publicized ceremonial funeral in an attempt to ‘bury’ the word from the American vernacular. And while the move sparked short term conversation and nod of approval, the effort yielded little lasting results.
Regarding the R-word, replacing that objectionable word with one holding less of a stigma does not get at the root of the problem. Just decades ago, ‘retarded’ was in fact the favored term by experts who were attempting to move away from then-hurtful words of the day like ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘imbecile.’
The trouble is not the words themselves but the intent carried by the people who use them. And even if we’re just trying to be funny, until we understand that, words will continue to cause harm.


  1. Excellent blog! Thought you might like this. It is an excerpt from my play with the same title.

    1. Thanks for reading. I went to your site. Important stuff. May I re-post this link on my FB page?