The R-Word


What’s in a word? Letters of course. But there’s more. A word has the power to evoke emotion; beautiful or ugly, inspirational or devastating.

In the eighties “gay” was a common descriptor. As in, “Oh my god, those jelly shoes look totally gay with those parachute pants.” A few decades later, while shopping with a friend I said, “This song is so gay.” To which she replied, “Really? It’s homosexual is it?” She worked in an industry populated by gay men and pointed out that using gay as a synonym for stupid or odd was offensive. Prior to her bluntly putting it into context like that, the concept had no relevance for me. I didn’t have any gay friends at the time and wielded this word with complete disregard for the feelings of others. Unintentionally, but ignorantly just the same.

Chances are if you were a teen in the eighties or nineties you also threw around such phrases as, “I can’t believe how retarded that movie was.” Or “I look like a retard with this perm.” I was guilty of using it until I suddenly became faced with the reality of the word.

I have a sense of humour and know there’s nothing funny about politically correct robots. I’m simply suggesting some words are so warped and emotionally loaded, they are better left unspoken.

If a child is developmentally challenged, they are by definition, mentally retarded. It is what it is, but the word retarded catches in my throat. Many families prefer the term “developmentally delayed”. I feel delay suggests if you work hard enough, a child with developmental delays will eventually catch up. Maybe they will. But maybe not. I prefer special needs. Or in my daughter’s case, unique.

In medical circles the term mentally retarded is perfectly acceptable. But when you’re at the grocery store with your unique child and the woman ahead of you in line complains, “This line is so slow. Is the cashier retarded?” it is NOT acceptable. It’s ignorant and insensitive.

When someone uses the r-word in casual conversation, almost always sarcastically or in jest, I wonder if they know what a huge impact this word has? Retard is a word Hollywood uses often for a laugh. The thing is, if developmental challenges are a part of your reality, it’s simply not funny.

Words are more than letters. They have meaning.


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