Words have the power of life and death. After the Special Olympics sponsored a campaign to stop the use of the r-word nationwide, its corresponding Facebook page with the clever slogan – Spread the Word to End the Word – has entered over 404, 000 online pledges. On the Facebook wall, some supporters left narrative glimpses of how it’s felt to be a living target of verbal ridicule.
Joyful writes, “I grew up with an LD. I was called the “R” Word and all those words that go with it by other students, neighbours and hurtful of all my family. The R word Kills, Destroys, breaks a person’s spirit.”
The r-word has been used, along with autistic, to mean “stupid.” The r-word has also been used to refer to autistic people in a demeaning way. Regardless of which diagnosis the r-word refers to, it carries the same crude message and with one word, demoralizes people with developmental disabilities. It reduces their worth as a human being because it implies that value only comes with intelligence or a certain “normalcy.”
The r-word used to describe a medical condition of what was once termed, mental retardation. However, over time, people began to take that word, and instead of plainly saying that something was dumb or self-destructive, they’d say the r-word.
In the last few years, there have been significant efforts by the US, British, Australian and Canadian governments to replace the term mental retardation with intellectual disability in their respective legislatures. People with intellectual disabilities then become marginalized in society the more their medical diagnosis is used as a put-down. It reveals a lack of respect and acceptance for people with these conditions. It implies that people without their type of disabilities get to somehow determine whose accepted and valued in society, and to also determine the criteria of that acceptance.
The exclusion is what people with developmental disabilities are trying to change in their effort to raise consciousness about the harmful misuse of the r-word. The prominent author, Jonathan Franklin Stephens, who has Down syndrome, points out: “It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be.”
The fact that the derogative use of the r-word has not caused nearly the reaction Celebrity chef, Paula Deen caused when she admitted to using the n-word. While many believe the r-word is just as demoralizing as the n-word, it doesn’t have the same conviction in society about abolishing its use as the n-word did.
It can be hard to confront close friends, family members, or others if they misuse the r-word. But, once a pledge is made, the R-Word Facebook page responds with advice on how to respectfully confront and in doing so, maintain the dignity of all people.