Me, the R-Word, and Other People

Someone who reads this blog AND knows me in real life asked me recently if I’d ever actually asked someone not to use “the r word” around me.

The simple answer is yes, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes I correct people and sometimes I don’t. And now, sadly, I’m going to share how I handle this topic. I am SURE some of you will disagree, and I look forward to hearing how you handle these situations:

As an adult, when I’m interacting with my peers–other adults–I don’t correct their language or grammar. I figure that at this point, you’re going to do what you want to do and change needs to come from within.

What I do think I have a right to comment on is the language used around my child.  Just like I wouldn’t mind asking someone not to use the F-word around Charlie, I also feel comfortable saying, “we don’t like to use that word around Charlie.” I usually follow it up with a comment about how Charlie or his classmates might one day have that word used against them.

After that, I don’t keep harping on it. Instead, I make a slightly-melodramatic-grimace the next time they use it. It may be a little over the top, but I figure I’m getting my point across.

There are, of course, other situations where I might chide someone on Twitter or Facebook–people I know, people I am comfortable with. It’s not a perfect situation. It’s not even clear cut. I would say without hesitation that some of Charlie’s biggest supporters–people who get down on the ground and play with him, love him, and have embraced him as a part of our their lives–are the same people who dropped the r-word without a second thought. I think it’s a give and take. Are their hearts in the right place? Absolutely. Their mouths? Not always. I can only hope that knowing Charlie and our family and reading this blog will help people know that it’s an ugly word that needs to be left in the past.

That’s how I handle it–how about you guys?

Little Saints Fan

Black and Gold Day at School

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. I agree with you 100%.
    I think that for some it is easier than others to drop that word into their every day conversation without giving it a thought. Until heaven help them, their child, or someone they love is affected by something that affects either their mental capabilities or their physical ones. Then like a switch, or so it seems for me, it goes on. That isn’t a cool word, and not a very nice descriptive of anyone.
    Something I tell myself all the time, and for me it works. God didn’t make any mistakes. Every person is on this planet for a reason. Some to be the student, some the leader, some the teacher, some the taught by example.
    But that is just me.
    Hugs, my friend, and I am glad I can call you that.

  2. I don’t have a problem addressing this with friends, family, students, or strangers. Usually I pause and say, “Did you mean ridiculous or a terrible idea? Then I don’t think you meant to use that word which also references a disabled person in such a hateful way.”

    It works most of the time.

  3. I think this is a perfect way to deal with use of the R word, for families with children with special needs and EVERYONE else too. Of course, if we all handled it this well, then we wouldn’t have an issue because we’d all be aware of how crummy that word is.

  4. Pretty much the same way.

    A neighbor/friend of ours has said the r-word at our house twice in casual conversation but Ihaven’t corrected him. Like you said, his heart is in the right place but not always his mouth. (I think he was using this word to describe some actions of a co-worker that he disagreed with…whatever). In regards to Oia, he LOVES her and the idea that this could be a potentially hurtful word is over his head. He comes over just to visit her, plays on the floor with both my daughter and his, signs ‘i love you’ back to Oia, jokingly claims he’ll shine his shotgun when she starts dating. Just not a battle worth picking when it comes to this fella’. Another offender maybe, but not him….

  5. Thanks for the post. I’m linking to it on my blog & wish I could send it to everyone I know. Unfortunately, I’m still grappling with the “how to handle it” part. I guess my blog will be the starting point. Baby steps, right?

  6. Well, to be honest, I haven’t heard this word used much at all since I was a child. I actually thought it wasn’t really used anymore but I guess with all the hype about not using the r-word that I’m wrong and using it is much more common than I thought. But, I think if someone used that word around me I would say that I find it offensive and would appreciate them not using it and then just get on with life. I don’t think we need more drama than we already have and anyone that cares about me or Emma would certainly not mind respecting my request.

  7. I don’t correct adults that I don’t know, however I do make an overly dramatic wince when they say it and it usually gets the point across. HOWEVER when it comes to children and people that I do know, I have no qualms about correcting them. Case in point, we were on the beach in Michigan and some pre teen boys kept yelling about retards and I had just about had enough. I asked them politely to stop saying it and they increased the frequency. I walked up to them and said “that’s enough, there is a young disabled child playing on the beach and he doesn’t need to hear that kind of language, nor does anyone else” They immediately apologized and I could hear them start to say the word and then change it to something different, even when they thought I was out of ear shot. I don’t like the word, I don’t use the word, and I don’t like when people use the word incorrectly.

    • Chrissi-
      Are you a teacher? I feel like you are. For me, as a former teacher, it doesn’t take much to get me to correct children and adolescents. I actually have a pretty brutal way of getting adolescents to stop using it. Kudos to you for making a point to those kids–it’s important for them to hear that.

      • Yup, I am :) I am currently on hiatus from teaching in a formal setting but never pass up an opportunity to teach someone!

  8. I still use the word sometimes.

    I do something I think I should not have and I walk away mumbling to myself ‘Jesus, you’re fuckin’ retarded.’ Now, let’s examine that for a moment. I blaspheme, put myself down to fulfill my father’s abusive role in my life now that he no longer does, swear, and disparage an entire community of individuals and I may not have even had my morning coffee yet.

    But the truth of it is, I am not a bad man. I am a good man, who just did four bad things and will probably do a lot more by day’s end. I am human. I struggle. The struggle defines me. The efforts I make during the struggle defines me. the lessons I learn during all the mistakes I WILL make during the struggle defines me.

    The words do not define me.

    Unless they are actually in a dictionary ABOUT me. well, then they’d be defining me. But you get my point.

    I see the word ‘retard’ the same way I see the word ‘fuck’ or ‘nigger’. They are JUST WORDS. Harsh? Absolutely hell yes. But just words nonetheless, and I refuse to call them ‘X-Words’ when I refer to them in conversation, even though I certainly would strive to not use them as weapons TOWARDS someone.

    See that’s the real question here. That’s the REAL issue. Not that the word ‘nigger’ or ‘retard’ are BAD WORDS. How can a WORD be bad? It’s a word? INTENT is bad. Words are just used to define intent. CALLING SOMEONE A RETARD OR A NIGGER IS DESPICABLE. I think we all agree on that, hands down.

    But ‘retarded’ is a word. No more. No less. I’m going to drop some bombs, both R and F, at times I wish I hadn’t, because I am human. Probably not N, simply because the racial issue was one that was one I never had to deal with much as a kid, my mom was in no way racist and I dodged that bullet thank God.

    But if I drop the F-bomb or the R-bomb, It won’t make me evil, it will make me human, and I will struggle to shape myself into something better and hopefully it will be the struggle that defines me, not any words I use. Will I be ashamed when I look into the eyes of my disabled son? You bet your ass it will.

    Somewhere in here I had a point, but I lost my way.

    Dammit… I’m so…(GOTCHA!) 😛

    • Ahhh. . Ken, I struggle to answer this. I, as a person who loves books and words and loathes censorship, completely agree that words are just words. They’re just a series of sounds to which WE attach a meaning. I struggled with this for a long time and finally came to some sort of answer that satisfies me. Some words have baggage. Some words are heavy with generations of disrespect and abuse. When we use those words, we run the risk that someone will trip over the baggage, get caught up in it all and miss whatever our intended meaning was. That baggage may be so heave that for some, it’s like a punch in the gut. For me, I decided that no word in worth that. No word should ruin someone’s day or make them cry, so I avoid those words. Recently I got a lesson on the word “plantation” and the horrible images it conjure for some. It’s a balancing act. I don’t believe in general censorship, I believe in self-censorship.

      • This is an AMAZING response Katy. I have a really hard time trying to explain to people how I feel on this subject and I think the way you did here was great! I have a hard time because I did always use this word (before Zach) and I NEVER meant to offend anyone by it so I just assume as a general rule that others are the same way I was.
        Even Zach’s family and friends still use this word without thought, we did have one “family discussion” with them about this and it has helped a lot but they do slip up from time to time.
        The hardest part is when Nathan and I have discussions and don’t agree on how to deal with a situation where the word was used.
        GREAT JOB!

      • I agree with that, and it is a very good explanation of how you feel about it. After having lived in the Deep South for several years I had no idea that plantation was such a heavyweight word myself, until my experiences there. Up north? No big deal at all. But down there? Totally different. So even regionally there are verbal mine fields that one can sometimes find oneself in.

        Most of my response was very typical of me…flippant and irresponsible and an attempt at bad humor more than intelligent and thoughtful. My best only seems to come out in me the second time around. Why is that? I don’t know. I certainly wasn’t trying to be insulting or disrespectful and if I did, I apologize.

        It’s all one giant slippery slope isn’t it, this Life thing?

        And this is probably yet another Blog Etiquette breach, but I liked your blog from today, about blogging, and it is VERY hard sometimes to navigate life as a ‘blogger’ with some people you know in life. I had an experience recently I really desperately need to write about that is eating away at me and I know if I do it will cause an explosion in my real life…I really am having a hard time deciding what to do.

  9. Just out of curiosity (and to fight my own ignorance here), how do you describe Charlie’s ailments? I don’t even know if “ailment” is the correct term….it’s tough to know what’s okay to say and what’s not. I mean, the r-word is an obvious one, but beyond that what IS okay?

    • Sarah, typically I say, “my son is disabled.” If people need more info to explain our situation I say, “my son has a disability that causes him to have low muscle tone.” That’s how I do it and I’m not super-critical or particular about it. I’m not upset by words like “handicapped” or “impaired.” I’ve also been more vague and said, “my son has special need” if we’re just talking in passing. If someone asks, “what type of special need?” or “what’s his diagnosis?” I’m fine with that too. I think that some language is better than others, but if people have a kind expression or good intent, that’s the most important thing.

      • Thanks for the info, lady! I have an uncle who is hadicapped…he was in a car accident about 35 years ago and has been in a wheelchair all my life. It’s interesting to hear others’ takes on this. :)

  10. I correct people when they refer to Owen as ‘Hearing Impaired’. He’s Deaf. There are Hearing Impaired people out there, he’s just not one of them. I really like it when a person wants to know the difference between the two.

    As for the R word. We don’t use it, and I grimace when I hear others use it. Probably melodramatically.

  11. I use the term Autism as in

    Lauren has Autism.

    Lauren is NOT autistic.

    One describes a disorder, the other a trait. I am unable to describe my 3 neuro typical kids ine one word, why would I think I could describe L

    tulpen- I’ve always enjoyed your posts regarding Deaf vs Hearing Impaired. Keep them up!

    I really like this post. I have more to say but I have to go.


    • I like the distinction between they have Autism as opposed to they are Autistic-in fact, in an intro to special ed class I made a point to the entire class that it’s entirely wrong to say someone is Autistic because it uses a single word to define someone and that’s not right.

    • Kristin: Thank you so much for this. I have always used the word Autistic. I will now work on changing that.

    • When I worked with adults with developmental delays, that was one of the core ideas they tried to drill in to us. A person is an individual, NOT their disability, so it should not be used to define who they are. Someone HAS Down Syndrome, or Autism, or something else. Horribly enough, my employer used to refer to our employees (it was a sheltered workshop for adults with delays) as “Retards.” It just made me sick, and was only one of many reasons I left that job.

  12. Kristin’s comment of:

    ‘I use the term Autism as in
    Lauren has Autism.
    Lauren is NOT autistic.’

    …is very interesting. I never looked at it that way before. It’s something I need to chew on a lot today. It makes a ton of sense to me.

  13. so far I’ve found that my friends and family police themselves. The R word will slip out in front of me and the person who said it will make that overly dramatic grimace on their own. They know they need to stop saying it, and I’m they are aware and there’s no need for me to lecture or rebuke. In time, they’ll get out of the habit.

  14. I agree with Kristin — I always use the word autism to describe Luke. Autisic has such negative conotations and like she said it describes a behavior.

    The R-word. I’ve never corrected anyone; can’t remember if there has been a situation where I should have. My duaghters and I have discussed it (they are in 6th and 4th grade). If Luke would have been born when I was (late ’50’s) he probably would have been classified as “retarded”.

    I believe the politically correct term is “cognative delay” or something similar.

  15. I think we must live in the biggest PC bubble in the world. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in our community use the R-word. Instead I have people (like others here) asking me what appropriate words are. It is interesting to me that Janet and Kristin both prefer “John has autism” to “John is autistic”. I actually don’t mind either, but tend to lean the other way…and when I use it as a description I throw in other very apt descriptions, e.g. “Suzy is artistic, intelligent, musical and autistic.” Autistic need not be the only adjective used to describe a person. I find the former to be more clinical sounding and disease rather than disorder oriented. I do cringe when others compare my daughter to “normal” kids. I prefer neuro-typical or typical peers, because my daughter is in many ways “normal” just not in how her brain processes the world. In this way the spectrum of autism disorders is quite handy…I often tell people that our daughter is “somewhere on the autism spectrum” and then if they are truly interested they will ask for more information and depending on how well I know them I go into more or less detail as appropriate.

  16. R word–
    oddly enough, the only time I’ve heard the term used for a person with disabilities was if my grandmother-in her 80’s or my mom (60’s) used it- and then it was in a hushed and embarrassed tone. Medical journals and reports used the word as a proper medical term in their day.
    I’ve used it- but in place of “how stupid can you really be” . The habit is hard to break and sometimes it still flies out of my mouth in a moment of angry passion-whether a driver cut me off or how the thingamajig I am trying to put together is poorly designed.
    you would be amazed, though, at the number of healthcare professionals who are totally comfortable using the r word to describe a child without a thought about the damage the word causes. The old school professionals need updating…and while their at it- educate the up and coming professionals that journals prior to 19XX use the word, but it is considered incorrect and unprofessional now.

    • Sally:
      The entire time I taught children in school, “retarded” was the term used to describe on their official paperwork. I would be at a party and say, “I teach children with learning disabilities or maybe those who are mildly retarded.” I believed that in that sense, it was a completely acceptable word. Only after having Charlie was exposed to the anti-r-word movement and realized how many people find it so repugnant. I’ve changed my language accordingly. All we can do it hope that more and more people realize the impact that word can have.

  17. I’m like you, I would say something nicely, but not harp on it. I can’t stand that word and don’t use it. It’s awful. I honestly don’t understand why adults even use it the way they do….

  18. I don’t use it and frankly, I think you are handling it great. Came over from @Erin’s retweet. Nice place you have here! BTW…what a cutie your Charlie is!

  19. I was up at Cheyenne’s high school the other day, and I swear I heard that word about 500 times walking down the hall. I know I slip up from time to time–it might come out of my mouth along with a string of other words I really don’t want my children to hear. I hope at those times, someone is around to correct me.

    • High schoolers are the worst about a lot of things. It’s part of asserting their independence I believe. Everybody slips up on something. Like I said, intent is huge. Besides, you’re such a fabulous lady, I’m sure only rainbows and kittens come out of your mouth!

  20. I’m furious when I hear it from strangers or see it on Facebook. But only a few times have I actually said something.
    But there are some close friends, relatives and nurses who manage to use it every time I see them. I’m baffled how they could just let it roll off their tongues right in front of my boys. But, like you mentioned, they’re hearts are in the right place especially assuming they don’t see a giant “R” above my boys’ heads. They see them as they are, my sons, their cousins, their nephews, their patient. So I think they just need one good talkin’ to, just a few words to remind them the r-word is not a replacement for “stupid”…and that it’s a painful word when used that way.

    But funny, you just never ever realize how much it’s said, how often kids/adults like our kids are made fun of on TV or in film. It’s like using the word “gay” to mean “silly”…I would have thought we’d come a long, long way from using words as perjoratives, and I’m still not sure most people are doing so conscientiously. But people, for the absolute most part, I believe, use these words not even thinking how profoundly hurtful and insulting they are- at all. To them, it’s like saying “potato”.

    Have you ever heard the argument that it shouldn’t be offensive because it’s a medical term?

    This is a page on FB and a website many of you have heard of…they crossed the line and this is where I finally boycotted them @ the time of this post- and the thing that killed me is that so many people insisted it was funny!

  21. I don’t care for that word at all. When I taught in Arizona, they still used the designations of “Mildly Mentally Retarded” and “Mentally Retarded” when identifying students for special education services. I always felt that was offensive and creates an assumption that is usually not correct. In Colorado, the term isn’t much better, SLIC – Significantly Limited Intellectual Capacity. Really? How can we possibly determine that a child has limited intellectual capacity? But back to your post, I too, find the r-word to be offensive. I don’t allow my own children to use it in their conversation or interactions, and they understand why. Good for you for correcting and addressing it in the manner in which you do!

  22. Hi! Just bumped into your blog! What a cute boy you have! It is really nice to meet you. I have a special guy of my own. His name is Wyatt, he’s 4, in a wheelchair, does not speak or do much of anything for himself. No diagnosis.

    The r-word……still not sure how I feel about that one. I like your take on it!

    Love, Bree

  23. Sorry for a very long moment I wasn’t sure what R was supposed to represent. That should tell you that it is not a word that is even in my vocabulary. I have to say it is a word that I don’t like to hear either so I would visibly cringe when it is in my ear shot.
    I think your way of handling it is point on.

    Naturally with regards to autism… my son has autism as commented earlier and he is never ever ever referred to as autistic. Mind you I very rarely put the two words together in a sentence my son and autism. I try not to label him…

  24. I found this link on Marketing Mama’s blog. Awesome post. My employers son has Downs. Zach is such a great kid, but they have similar struggles with the r-word. Zach’s older sister Kari Jo made this You Tube video about saying NO to the r-word. Check it out. it is SO good.