Today is March 2, a day dedicated to erasing the R-word. Do you know what the R-word is? It stands for any usage in any context (hurtful or official) of the word retarded or retard.
I know this may come across as sounding barfily PC, but it’s not.
For people with developmental disabilities and their families, the R-word has developed such intensely negative connotations over time that it has taken on the weight of words like “nigger,” “fag,” “spick,” “kike,” “slut.” Do you ever use those words, even as a joke or to be self-deprecating? Maybe some people do. I don’t. It felt weird even to type them out.
Here’s a confession: I used to use the R-word all the time. And not that long ago. Because as much as I believe that words carry weight, I also believe that meanings can be changed, they can be appropriated and one of the best things about this country is that anybody can say anything: You should say the R-word if you want to; I just hope that you won’t want to. And I thought that, because my brother has a developmental disability, I was being super edgy when I said that something was “retarded.” I thought that I was re-appropriating the word, like black people have done with the N-word. Plus, I enjoyed the attention from people who were shocked that I of all people would use it.
There was one really huge flaw in my reasoning though.
I do not have a developmental disability.
Being the sibling of a person with a disability does not make one an honorary disabled person. Just like having a gay best friend doesn’t make you an honorary homosexual and having a black best friend doesn’t make it okay for you to say the N-word. Turns out? People with disabilities don’t want to re-appropriate the R-word. They know that most people aren’t being mean when they use it, but they still want it to go away.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to be clued into how awful I was being for the simple reason that I never used the R-word within hearing of my disabled friends and they never told me about how hurtful they found it, even in non-derogatory contexts, such as The New York Times. (The federal government has stopped using the R-word, but the newspaper of record is laughably behind).
Anyway, the fact that I never used it around people with disabilities should have clued me in that I shouldn’t have been using it at all.
Then a few years ago, the Special Olympics began its campaign to End The Word. And man oh man, the flood gates opened. Suddenly, every single person with a disability was talking about how much they hate the word, about how the fact that “retarded” the slang word had made “retarded” the diagnosis seem like a slap in the face. My brother started speaking up; even when he hears strangers in the grocery store use it, he’ll say, “That word hurts my feelings.” My pal Ismael, a fellow freelance journalist, wrote this amazing article on the R-word and asked me for help. The self-advocate association at my old job set up a table at a conference and began selling rad buttons. And I knew that I had to stop saying it.
It wasn’t hard for me to erase the R-word because I had so many reasons to stop:
- My brother
- My friend Ivan who I sat next to just a year ago during a performance of Mahler’s Second at Carnegie Hall
- These guys
- RZ wrote the music in this cutey-pie’s video
Maybe you don’t have a friend or relative who has a disability. But unless you live under a rock, you do have a friend or a co-worker who has a relative with a disability. Trust me, they would be really happy if they never heard that word again.
Johnny Knoxville, whom you may know from such stand-out films as Jackass: The Movie, Jackass Number Two and Jackass 3D (which I reviewed here), can hardly be characterized as a blushing daisy of sensitivity and moral rectitude. But after starring with a bunch of people with disabilities in The Ringer, he doesn’t say it anymore either.