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Stopping The R-Word!!

By Colleen Newell
On December 5, 2012

Recently, while I was at home watching the television with my children, a commercial came on. An African-American man appeared, and stated, "It is not acceptable to call me a 'n-----r'", followed by a Latina woman, an Asian woman, a gay man, and a Jewish man, all using the derogatory, slang terms that could apply to them. As a mother, my immediate reaction was to slap my hands over my five-year-old son's ears so he would not learn and repeat what I consider to be swear words. Then I saw Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter, prominent actors from Fox's hit show, "Glee", appear and make a very controversial statement. They claim that using the word "retard" is just as offensive, and are part of a national campaign to stop negative use of the word called "Stop the R-Word".
As a member of a generation that regularly uses the word in a casually derogatory manner, it came as a bit of a shock. I don't use the word myself, because I tend to steer away from any kind of negative labeling when possible; but I've never thought twice about hearing someone else say it. Seeing that commercial really made me stop and think about how hurtful the word retard really is.
As part of my quest to find out more about the issue, I looked up the specifics of the campaign by visiting the "R-Word" websites. To learn more for yourself visit; www.r-word. org or The sites are sponsored mainly by the Special Olympics, but the cause has been taken up by many.
They ask people to take a pledge to "support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities." I noticed in the comments on the sites that there is a host of reactions and many opinions to this effort to ban the "R-Word". To find out what the response would be on a more personal level, I asked students and faculty around campus to express their opinions on the subject.
Surprisingly, many people based their responses on terms of what the dictionary says. The word retard is defined in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary to mean, "Retard vb: to hold back: delay the progress of. Retarded adj, sometimes offensive: slow or limited in intellectual, emotional, or academic progress." One of the first people I spoke with, Professor Sarney, told me, "I think if you look up the word retard it means slow, backwards, and that's not what they are at all. They're just special."
Another student, who chooses to remain anonymous, says he would never use racially derogatory terms, one of the reasons being because those words are not in the dictionary. The r-word, he says, is in the dictionary, and he would therefore have no compunctions about its use, casual or not. Another student pointed out that many racial, religious, and gender-preference slurs were created specifically to have a derogatory meaning, and that in his opinion, those words are clearly meant to be offensive, whereas the r-word is simply another word that people have the right to use.
One particularly vocal student, who also chose to remain anonymous, stated, "They're ridiculous. Retard is a word. I can use retard to describe you as stupid. I'm not saying you're mentally handicapped, I'm just saying you're an idiot. We have freedom of speech!" The majority of people I spoke with, however, were very supportive of the movement.
Student Crystal Ashburn says, we "get upset when other people use other words. It's not unreasonable that they get upset when we use that word." Brent Lang adds, "I think it's reasonable because black people want the n-word to be cut out of conversation, so why not cut out the word retard?"
However, another student made a good point, when he said that "People are only offended if they are personally connected to the word." Of the hundred plus people I questioned many responded by giving examples of a particular slang word that they objected to; and then related their dislike of that particular slang word to their reason for understanding why mentally challenged individuals would object to the r-word.
Others, like myself, simply dislike the use of any form of derogatory name calling. One of the things that most disturbed me while writing this article was the staggering number of people who, even after stating that they support the cause, expressed the belief that the word will continue to be used in its pejorative form. There was an overwhelming sense of agreement among students and staff alike that people are not likely to stop using the r-word any more than they have stopped use of any of the negative slang terms which we continue to hear today.
Such a minimal amount of faith in the decency of our fellow human beings was saddening to hear. Even more upsetting was the fact that many of the people who will continue the r-word's use simply don't care, because they truly don't believe it is causing any harm. Professor Susan Keith asks, "Where is our responsibility as educated people?" She makes a very good point. If we, as educated individuals, know that something we are doing is hurting others, then why do it?
In particular, when the thing causing pain is as preventable as stopping the use of a word, then we should simple refrain from its use. From this point on, I can readily make the pledge that I, Colleen Newell, support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech, and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.
I will no longer say that this class is retarded, or that person is such a retard. And maybe the next time I'm out with my son, and I hear someone use the r-word, I will be slapping my hands over his ears and say, "Excuse me! There is a child present!"

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