Let’s talk about the “R” slur

Why the “R” word is a slur and how you can be a better ally to people with disabilities

May 5, 2021

The words “retard” and “retarded” stem from the term “mental retardation”. The term “mental retardation” was first introduced in 1961, and it was not meant to be derogatory; it was a medical term used to describe people with intellectual disabilities. Over the years, however, the word has been stigmatized to the point where it is no longer used in the language of modern medicine. 

“Mental retardation” has not been a valid medical term since President Barack Obama signed “Rosa’s Law” in 2010. “Rosa’s Law” changed the term “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability” in U.S. federal law. Therefore, the use of the word is now completely unnecessary and is used only as an insult at the expense of people with disabilities.

“My mother always said ‘think before you speak’,” voiced Saucon paraprofessional Lorraine Torrella. “I would ask students to please think twice before you use the ‘R’ slur. It is a hurtful term that can cause a negative impact on students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.”

The idea that the “R” slur is hurtful to people with disabilities seems to be a common belief among paraprofessionals at Saucon.

“I feel the ‘R’ word is a derogatory term and it’s offensive,” said Suzanne Coyle, a paraprofessional at Saucon. Coyle also has a son who has autism and an intellectual disability. “People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are hurt and offended by the use. It’s disrespectful.”

That raises the question of whether it’s a coincidence that both paraprofessionals describe the word as being hurtful to people with disabilities, or if it’s directly related to their line of work.

When asked how her experience with children who have disabilities has shaped her feelings about the “R” slur, Coyle said, “I feel I have a unique perspective. It’s my day everyday: my job as a paraprofessional in a school setting and as a mom. I have a son, Jake, who is autistic with an intellectual disability. I remember when his developmental pediatrician diagnosed him, she told me all the things she thought he wouldn’t be able to do. She held my hand and told me it was okay to cry. I didn’t cry. I got angry. Angry because even as a doctor she was labeling him, putting him in a category of can’t, won’t, and will never be able to. Jake is now 22 years old, he is competitively employed, a goalie on the Lehigh Valley Polar Bears ice hockey team, and is living his best life.”

Not all disabled people fit into a neat little box of what they can and can’t do. A common phrase that people may say is, “focus on ability, not disability.” It’s redundant to just always focus on what people can’t do because of their disability. Instead, focus on things that they can do. Now, some people may be wondering how they can explain to someone else why the “R” slur is offensive.

“Sometimes it is difficult,” said Torrella. “If you’re not walking in the shoes of someone with an intellectual or physical disability, you cannot feel the full effect. You don’t understand what it feels like to be identified in that derogatory way.”

Coyle sometimes needs to advise others based off of her personal experience.

“When I hear people use that term I tell them I have a son with an intellectual disability and I feel that word is offensive,” she explained. “Some people use that term not realizing how hurtful it is. I find that most people are receptive to listening and understanding. If people continue to use the “R” word after that then I ignore them and walk away, they aren’t worth the time, my time.”

When Saucon students with multiple disabilities ranging from physical to intellectual were asked what they thought about people saying the “R” word, they had some things to say.

“You have to stop using that word,” voiced a Saucon Valley senior. “It’s not nice.” 

The other students in the classroom nodded their heads in agreement.

“Stop calling people retarded,” agreed a Saucon Valley freshman. “It makes me feel upset and uncomfortable.”

There are much better alternatives to the “R” slur when describing disabilities and the people who have them.

“Just use the word disability,” said a Saucon Valley freshman who has a disability.

It does not have to be this big dilemma. Just say the word disabled. People treat the words disabled and disability as if they’re Voldemort’s name. They’re not bad words. You can say a person has a disability; it does not make them any lesser of a person.

“Take a step into their world. Don’t be afraid of a person’s seemingly unusual behavior,” urged Torrella. “Be nice and be a decent human being towards someone who may be a little bit different than you. At the end of the day … all you have to be is kind.”

Torrella then urged teachers to “redirect students.” She explained how it was very important that educators role model kind and respectful language. She then concluded by talking about how students should “unite and educate others.” 

“Help students understand intellectual and/or developmental disabilities,” prompted Torrella. “Students with disabilities deserve respect and consideration.”

People with disabilities are just that: people. Someone’s disability does not define them, however, it can be an important aspect of their life. Treating someone with respect does not mean ignoring their disability. If someone with a disability needs help, don’t be afraid to offer.

If you see someone with a disability struggling, one Saucon Valley senior who has a disability suggests, “You can say ‘do you need assistance with anything? I see you’re struggling. Is there anything I can do to help you?’” 

The main idea is just to be a good person.

“Be a better ally for people with intellectual disabilities at school and in the community,” encouraged Coyle. “Say hello, make conversation and be kind!”

Go to https://www.spreadtheword.global to take a pledge to stop saying the “R” word today.

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