I'm a Bit Holier Than Thou When It Comes to the R-Word

It shocks the hell out of me every time one of my friends casually throws out an, "Oh my God, I am so retarded" Really? Does no one else take offense? Or am I the only sanctimonious retard that cares?
Publish date:
August 31, 2012
offensive language, name calling, the r-word

There’s the N-word and the C-word. We know these are not nice words. But, there’s another consonant out there rife with mockery, one lowly little letter that gets lost toward the end of the alphabet.

It’s the R-word people. And it never fails to shock the hell out of me when people use it. No, not in the "thirty-year old woman next door is mentally retarded and is living independently for the first time" way, but more like, "Oh, shut up, girl, you are so retarded!" ha-ha-ha way or, after running into a door, "Oh my God I am such a retard!" way.

Yeah. That’s right. I can be a little holier-than-thou when it comes to the R word. I don't want you to use it ever and have no problem letting people know it.

The last straw was when my yoga teacher snorted it. "This yoga mat is so retarded!" Yoga. Yoga! Aren’t those people supposed to be all evolved?

I don’t have some personal tale to tell. I don’t have a little brother who goes to life-skills classes, or who was teased by bullies at a mainstream school. I don’t even have a brother! But it still shocks the hell out of me every time one of my friends casually throws out an, "Oh my God, I am so retarded" or a casual, "That server is a total retard." Really? Because I'm pretty sure that makes you an asshole. Does no one else take offense? Or am I the only sanctimonious retard that cares?

The R-word is shit. What the N-word toward black people, the C-word toward women. It’s taking an entire group of people and giving them the F-word.

The Paralympics recently began in London. Few people realize that for the past 8 years ALL athletes with intellectual disabilities were barred, as an entire group, from competing following the 2001 Sydney scandal. A whole group of people!

In 2003 British sprinter Dwain Chambers tested positive for the steroid THG and was suspended then banned from Olympics for life. Can you imagine if the committee had said, "Gee. We just can’t trust any of those Brits. They’ll all find ways of duping us. All Brits barred from Olympics for the next eight years!"

Defenders of the casual use of the R-word say, so what? Look it up in the dictionary, they challenge me.

I brought this up to a friend of mine recently. She crooked her head, “Well, I know, but when you look at the definition...”

OK. Let’s look:


[ri-tahrd, for 1–3, 5; ree-tahrd

verb (used with object)

1. to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.

verb (used without object)

2. to be delayed.


3. a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, as in a machine.

4. Slang: Disparaging.

a mentally retarded person.

b. a person who is stupid, obtuse, or ineffective in some way: a hopeless social retard.

There are a bazillion words in the English language. If you trip over your own feet or a driver cuts you off, is a word that means "to delay the development of progress of an action or process" really the one you’re looking for?

The R-word itself has gotten so bogged down with hate-baggage, even medical professionals don’t like to use it. Because when they use it, they feel like assholes. So now there are euphemisms for "retarded": most notably, MRDD, which stands for Mentally Retarded Developmentally Delayed. Mentally disabled. Mentally challenged. Intellectually disabled. Intellectually challenged.

MRDD. It’s quick. Efficient. It encompasses a lot. It doesn’t get into details -– and why should it? It’s nobody’s business what the details of your kid’s/friend’s/whoever’s actual condition, and it staves off the harsh bitchiness of the R-word and all of its implications.

A somewhat recent development in mental healthy wordage is the label, "Special Needs," which according to the dictionary refers to "the individual requirements (as for education) of a person with a disadvantaged background or a mental, emotional, or physical disability or a high risk of developing one."

The phrase (or label for some -- it's not perfect) "Special Needs" attempts to shift the focus on the needs of the person, not the label of a person "She HAS special needs vs. She IS retarded."

Some might read this and say, "Oh, pooh, you are being waaay too sensitive and politically correct." But words have a thousand shades of meaning, and a great deal of power. If words and word choice were unimportant, it would have taken me five minutes to write this article, and you wouldn’t have any emotions whatsoever bubbling to the surface about how you feel about this topic.

But, of course, a word is only as good as its usage.

I was taking my two nieces to a café last summer, when one of them dropped her lemon bar. One looked at the other and mockingly crooked her hand to her chest, scrunched up her face and said, “Special Needs!”

Yes, these are good kids. Sweet kids. Kids that know their own cousins have autism. But, they’re a product of their snotty, fifth grade environment, and out it came. When I called them out on it, their little faces burned and they looked down. They knew. Not cool.

And we do that, too, as grownups. We know. "You are so retarded!" and "I’m such a retard." Not cool. Do I really need a stronger argument than that?