As the big sister of someone with special needs (and thus, as someone who won’t hesitate to point out your insensitivity), I’ve heard every argument in the book defending the use of the “r-word.” I love the idea behind the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign that resurfaces every spring, but unfortunately, it tends to make people defensive enough to drag up the same, tired protests that I’ve combatted for years.

My favorite might be this one: “I’m not talking about your sister.”

Well, yes. Of course you weren’t directly calling my sister a name. If you had been, you would probably be out cold by now (Just kidding. But don’t test me). Let’s clarify this, though: using the word “retarded” in a derogatory way toward anyone negatively affects people with developmental disabilities, since it perpetuates hurtful stereotypes.

When you call someone or something “retarded,” even jokingly, you’re using the term as a synonym for “stupid.” That hurts developmentally disabled persons and their families, because by doing so, you’re essentially saying that people with special needs are somehow worth less than the average person. (And in case you’re wondering, most people with special needs are, in fact, aware that the “r-word” is insulting to them.)

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

Really? What did you mean, then, when you said that the outcome of your last test was “retarded”? I’m pretty sure you weren’t referring to the word’s literal definition, “slowed down.” By using the r-word with intent to convey negative feelings, you are either blatantly displaying your lexical ignorance or you are choosing to use a word with hurtful connotations in order to make your insulting statement a bit stronger. You made the choice to use that word instead of one that might be less offensive, so please don’t blame me for misconstruing your message.

“It’s a medical term. Why can’t I use it?”

Well, first, you weren’t diagnosing that test grade. Second, it’s an antiquated medical term. Today, since people have twisted the word “retarded” into an insult, the correct term (as determined by the signing of Rosa’s Law in 2010) is “intellectually (or developmentally) disabled.”

“What am I supposed to say instead? I have freedom of speech!”

When our conversation reaches this point, I usually just have to acknowledge that you have missed the point. The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign represents something bigger than just the abolition of a specific word—it seeks to help us all remember to simply be kind to one another.

By calling someone “retarded” or “gay” or anything else, you are using unnecessarily derogatory language. I like free speech as much as the average journalist (which is a lot), but whether or not you’re “free” to say these things is irrelevant when you cause suffering.

Instead of asking me what insulting term is socially acceptable, consider asking yourself how you could vent your frustration without hurting members of your community.

Spread the Word to End the Word means well, and I do believe that it is achieving its desired impact, since most people now recognize that the “r-word” is demeaning. There is still a long way to go, though; using terms aimed at certain societal groups derogatorily is a habit that some people still struggle to break.

As long as this language continues to be casually used, though, I’ll be happy to unapologetically remind the utterer to think before they speak.


September Symens is a junior English and journalism major from Omaha