I won’t spend time to spread the word to end the word – The R word that is

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I won’t do it.

I won’t dedicate time to “spread the word to end the word”. The “R” word.

I will point out to people who use the words retard or retarded as an insult or derogatory term that this is hate speech and ask them not to do it again. Most people tell me that’s not what they meant. But it is. It is no different that racial slurs or saying, “that’s so gay.” I agree with this critique of how the word retarded is used in common speech.

It is awful and hateful and people should absolutely have the courage to call people on their hate speech.

But I think that the broader effort of the campaign to end the use of the word retarded is, well…a bit pointless. Or at least not the point. Or maybe just too shallow.

Here’s why it is not the point.

The reason that words like gay and retarded get used as insults is because the population of people to whom they refer are deeply devalued in our society. It is the association of the word with a devalued group that causes the word to be adopted as an insult. It is not that the word itself is necessarily a problem.

Racial slurs are often a bit different because most come directly from a place of hate though some perhaps start as linguistic distortions. More about that here.

We can replace the “R” word with another word but likely that word will become problematic, too. Like “special.” Special started out as a substitute for the word retarded but now is just a joke.

Even Urban Dictionary agrees that this campaign misses the mark.

Taking the “R” word out of the public lexicon won’t end the devaluation of people with intellectual disabilities.

Isn’t it still a good idea to eliminate words that are hurtful?

Sure. But I think this campaign is a popular, feel-good distraction from the real issues and effective efforts to end the devaluation of disabled people. It makes people feel good about their efforts without actually making any kind of meaningful commitment.

It misses the mark because it pretends that if people are shamed into finding new insults that it will result in a change in what is in people’s hearts and minds. Just look at the number of people who are deeply racist but know better than to use racial slurs lest they be criticized.

The campaign shuts down honest communication with people who are not sophisticated in their terminology but who may actually be concerned about people with disabilities.

Because if you really want to improve the lives of people with disabilities then work towards employment opportunities, quality education, valued social roles, relationships… I could go on.

What I will do.

I will stand strong against hate speech. I will speak up when someone uses retarded as an insult or slur.

I will focus on the heart of the issue. I will not be distracted by catchy, popular campaigns. I will view language usage through the lens of ongoing devaluation.

What will you do?

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Genia Stephen
Genia Stephen

Sister, mother, midwife, writer, speaker and perpetually curious. Dedicated to bringing you the voices, ideas and conversations of world class mentors and thought leaders in the field of disability.