The power of language touches us daily. The compliment that makes us smile; the rude comment we can’t shake. Our word choices impact people. They reflect our values, our moods and our social awareness. Social awareness? Oftentimes people use words without a sense of how they affect others. This has become the case with the “R-word” - “retard[ed].”
Many ask, quite innocently, “What’s so offensive about that word?” From one perspective, very little. Rarely do people intend to insult those with intellectual disabilities when they say something is “retarded.” But think about it: “that’s retarded” is meant to convey “your behavior is deficient,” “you are incapable of doing it correctly,” “your effort lacks value.” And so on. Tim Shriver, the Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics, perhaps said it best when explaining our community’s fight against the R-word:
We are trying to awaken the world to the need for a new civil rights movement – of the heart. We seek to educate people that a crushing prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities is rampant – a prejudice that assumes that people with significant learning challenges are stupid or hapless or somehow just not worth much. They’re, um, “retarded.” And that attitude is not funny or nuanced or satirical. It’s horrific.
Intentional or not, the R-word is hurtful to many of the millions of people with intellectual disabilities, their familes and friends. Some time ago our oldest son (Patrick, who does not have Down syndrome) returned from school with unusual silence. When asked about his silence he replied, “Kids were using the R-word a lot at recess today, and it made me sad.” The word stings not only those with a disability, but those close to them too.
As a community who cares about people with intellectual challenges, we must work together to educate society about the hurtful effects of the R-word and encourage them to make better word choices. Perhaps one day we will succeed if we each play a part.
We hope you enjoy tonight’s celebration. Your trust and support is essential to DSF’s work. Thank you for sharing the evening with us.
-William and Dana Halle