Strike 'The R Word' From Your Vocabulary

True, "intellectually disabled" is a bit of a mouthful. But it's worth it, when you have such clear signals from a group of people about what they want — or do not want — to be called.
"Retarded" is a powerful — powerfully mean — word. I still have a tape running in my head from my childhood schoolyard, of aggressive kids with their Boston accents: "You retahd!" "That kid is retahded!"

It can take a long time to change language, but Massachusetts has taken a legal step: A couple of weeks ago, Deval Patrick signed a bill banning the use of the word "retarded" in state law.

Of course, when the Boston Herald reported this, the Comments section was full of responses like "That's retaaaaaaaahhhhhded!" (This one actually made me laugh: "Can we still use that word to describe our legislators, then?")

But Children's Hospital Boston is featuring an eloquent piece by Down Syndrome specialist Brian Skotko applauding the law and explaining why it's needed. (Note to self: DMR, the state Department of Mental Retardation, had changed its name to the Department of Developmental Services.)

Skotko writes that "For years, our society has turned what was once a simple medical term into an epithet of ridicule and bigotry."

While people might not purposely intend to hurt others with intellectual disabilities, their usage of the R-word comes at the expense of those who do have the medical label. Words have power. And, the most common way people misuse the R-word is to mock their own—or others’—limitations. In doing so, perhaps without even thinking about it, they are affirming that those with intellectual disabilities can’t accomplish much. They can’t succeed. The R-word diminishes expectations and frames a group of people as lesser human beings, with lower capabilities and talents.

Ask someone with Down syndrome or any other intellectual disability how it feels to hear the R-word used in a derogatory way. Many will tell you it makes them feel robbed of their dignity and self worth. They’ll tell you the word stings.  They feel like less of a person.

People with disabilities have decided that the R-word word has been tarnished irreparably and permanently. It’s ready to be retired. My patients—and their families—won’t stand for it anymore, nor should they. Their request to all of us is a simple one: find a different term when we are frustrated and mad. By doing so, we can restore human dignity, respect, and acceptance for those with intellectual disabilities.

This program aired on August 20, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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