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Removing the 'R-word' Sting

It’s said that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. On the contrary, words are as powerful as the sharpest knife cutting us to the core of our very spirits, or raising us up to the heights of our being. Among those of us with disabilities, there is one word that brings a collective stab of shame and pain. It is the dreaded 'r' word and I’ll grudgingly spell it out so we're clear: retarded.

According to the dictionary, it means having a limited or below normal mental ability. What in the world is normal or limited anyway? And by whose standards? Yes, I know there are medical and academic standards by which we are all measured in our developmental stages, but no two of us is exactly alike, even people with disabilities and certainly people with intellectual disabilities.

It’s a word that’s flopped around in teen speech casually like too-long bangs in each others’ faces to call each other stupid. I hear it even more frequently among adults these days. Thankfully in recent years, the medical and disability advocacy world has picked off the word like bad lint, giving way to “person-first,” empowering language that more aptly describes people with learning and developmental disabilities as having intellectual disabilities. They are people first and foremost who happen to have particular challenges. And anyone else with a disability is always a person first, disability next, important in whole always.

Because I myself have endured the hurt of being called by this word even though I use a wheelchair and have one leg, I do whatever I can to correct people I hear say the word. It’s sad, but others assume wrongly that my husband has a disability, too, in order to be with the likes of me, and even think this term of us both. It’s hurtful and wrong. I’ve come upon a website that has taken up the campaign to end the use of the dagger term.

The ‘R’ Word Campaign website launched in April 2007. No one at the time was speaking out nationally about the insulting term or the prejudiced foundation beneath its use. So, parents Rick and Wanda Felty of Oklahoma, who have a child with special needs, built a mission to stop this hurtful term in all its uses. It began when someone made a horrible observation about one their children. A stranger in a store commented, “I don’t know why they let people like that live”.

And then there was a joking racial slur made by national radio disc jockey Don Imus referring to Rutgers basketball players which provoked national civil rights leaders to step forward in outrage. The last ripple was the movie “Tropic Thunder” which peppered its comic dialogue with slur after slur using the ‘r’ word. The Special Olympics rallied at that point and joined the battle.

The Felty family says, though, “Although through their vast resources they have been able to bring the ‘r’ word to national attention, and we share in that message with them, our message is somewhat different in that we want to focus on ALL people with disabilities and the prevailing attitudes against them.”
So the ‘r’ Word Campaign stands to speak for those who cannot always speak the loudest, empower those who don’t believe they have a voice yet and to help them see that others are standing up and speaking out. Things are changing and words do make a difference. In the end the ‘r’ Word Campaign is not about national protests or media campaigns, it is a much more personal effort than that. When a person stands up to tell someone else that this word offends them, it becomes a matter of respect, their site says.

It's about telling the people we meet in our day-to-day lives that this word hurts to hear just as deeply as any slap in the face People with disabilities and those who love us would appreciate it if others would stop using it completely It isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s simply about respect. Won't you consider taking up this advocacy for more respect and sign the action pledge? You'll be glad you did.



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