Every year that I’ve been at CSU, I have been impressed by Pi Kappa Phi’s campaign to “spread the word to end the word.” In case you missed it, the fraternity brothers build a scaffold on the plaza and ask people to pledge to stop using the “R-word” and raise awareness about how hurtful the word can be when used in a derogatory way. I think it is awesome. I sign every year.
Pi Kappa Phi’s campaign is not only important because the word is hurtful, it also brings attention to a much larger social problem.
The problem with the “R-word” is not the actual word itself. The word has not always been synonymous with “stupid.” The Oxford English Dictionary first records it in the 17th century and with the meaning “held back or in check; hindered, impeded; delayed, deferred.” It wasn’t even used exclusively to describe people, and the word was not associated with medical diagnoses until the end of the 19th century. It was also not immediately used in a derogatory way.
Clearly, the use of the “R-word” has changed significantly for the worse in the last century. Today people use it to describe a “stupid” person, a bad situation, a difficult exam, etc.
In 2010 President Obama signed Rosa’s Law, which replaced the medical term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability,” as a result of the negative stigma that is now attached to the “R-word” because of people using the word out of context.
There is nothing innately bad about any word; words relationships to meanings are arbitrary. Taboo words do not start out taboo, but somewhere along the history of their existence, they socially begin to mean “less than.”
Taboo words are made taboo because they are taken out of context in a way that dehumanizes the group to which they originally referred. This is precisely what happened with the “R-word”.
Nobody cares what word you use to describe a test that you failed. What matters is if in the process you use a word that dehumanizes an entire oppressed and misunderstood group of people, precisely because you are continuing the cycle of dehumanization.
Last year during a presidential debate, Anne Coulter tweeted “”I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard,” referring to President Obama. This statement provoked a huge response from people who realized how detrimental and completely ignorant her statement was.
The most powerful response to Coulter’s tweet was not from people like me who found themselves sauntering through the plaza. The most powerful response came from John Franklin Stephens, Special Olympian and social advocate, in the form of an open letter.
To quote just one part of Stephens’s inspiring letter: “I wondered if you meant to degrade [President Obama] as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.”
Stephens’s letter was so impactful because he called Coulter out on using the word in a way that was dehumanizing to people like him. He explained to the world the very human problems that face individuals with intellectual disabilities. Stephens not only proved Coulter’s tweet to be ignorant, but he represented the same group she was inadvertently dehumanizing in a positive and, most importantly, in a human way.
Using the “R-word” as an insult is a direct reflection of a lack of understanding for people with intellectual disabilities that exists in our society. It reflects a larger societal disregard for the problems and obstacles that face individuals with intellectual disabilities, and their worth and contributions to the world.
People with intellectual disabilities are not stupid; they learn things differently. If you are using the “R-word” to describe something that is stupid, you likely do not know much of the lives of the impressive people that it refers to. You clearly do not know what the word means, even as you (mis)use it in sentences.
Pledging to end the use of the “R-word” goes beyond a pledge; it has to do with viewing and understanding people with intellectual disabilities and their worth.
Yes, stop using the “R-word” as an insult, because it’s not. But more importantly, start understanding people with intellectual disabilities and the social obstacles that they are faced with.