J. e-mails a number of us about the "r" word regularly. It's a painful ache she can't explain. In addition to her environmental pursuits and her special passion for arachnids she wants answers: "Why do they keep calling us 'r' names? "
R stands for retarded, a word that's likely not in your vocabulary and probably doesn't register on your concern meter. But it has been used 39,000 times recently on the web.
My children notice too and for good reason – their sister is shadowed by that insult. I wince at the cheap laughs it gets in movies. It seems to be cool in the same perverse way smoking in movies is cool. It's guaranteed a laugh when used by comedians. The Black Eyed Peas even released the song, 'Let's Get retarded' on their first disc.
Somehow it doesn't have the same taboo as other derogatory terms like nigger or Indian giver. (Recently the CBC Ombudsman chastised Kevin O'Leary for using the latter term on the tv news show, The Lang, O'Leary Report, denouncing it as 'unambiguously offensive and disrespectful.')
Fortunately, we may be seeing and hearing the 'r' word less often. An ingenious campaign "Spread the Word to End the R-Word." sponsored by Special Olympics is picking up steam. Their assessment is as blunt as M.'s – the 'r' word may be slang but it's hate speech.
Such words betray harmful stereotypes trivializing people with disabilities as less worthy, less valued members of our community. Prejudices that underlie discrimination. These terms tell us little about the recipient, more about the originator. Ignorance, carelessness, insecurity, malice.
The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign is enjoying successes. Over 186,000 have taken the pledge , mostly young students. Last week Lauren Potter star of the popular Glee tv series spoke out against the use of the 'r' word, describing her own continuing experiences of being bullied. The NBA just signed on. Last October, President Barack Obama signed "Rosa's Law" which removes the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from federal health, education and labor policy, replacing them with more people first terms such as "individual with an intellectual disability". Google which understands that words matter, is in on the act with the banner: Retard is Hurtful – Change the conversation whenever you google the 'r' word. And the Black Eyed Peas – they changed their song to Let's Get It Started in response to pressure, including the NBA.
I've already told J. about the campaign and she has joined. She recognizes a good idea when she sees one. "Enough's enough." she said.
If you agree – Take the pledge.
NOTE: This campaign is controversial among some disability leaders. They disagree with what they consider Special Olympics' segregated approach to sports, recreation and leisure. By extension they disagree with this campaign. And ignore its effectiveness. Too bad.
See the CACL documentary The "R" Word .
See our Wikipedia entry on the history of the Family Advocacy movement