Even in 2021, I still hear people using the R-word casually and without remorse, despite its negative impact. We need to not only stop using the R-word, but completely reframe our views of the disabled community.
The R-word refers to the slur “retard” or any of its variations such as “retarded” or “libtard”. Although many people recognize that the word is not considered “politically correct”, it is still used abundantly.
Kantar Social Listening studied the use of negative language against intellectually disabled individuals. For over two years, they reviewed more than 50 million social media posts about intellectually disabled people. They found that over two-thirds of the posts were negative. Nearly 29 million of the posts contained slurs, like the R-word or a variation of it.
Use of the R-word is accepted not only in everyday people, but by our celebrities, musicians, and politicians. For example, in October of 2020, Cardi B called herself “stupid” and “retarded” in a voice memo she posted to Twitter. After being named Billboard’s Woman of the Year, Cardi B stated the following in her cover story:
“Just the other day, I was getting chewed up because I said the R-word. Like, how you gonna cancel me for calling myself r—–ed?”Cardi B
In September of 2019, our now first female vice president, Kamala Harris, also seemed okay with the use of the R-word in a derogatory manner. While at a town hall meeting, one of the attendees called then-President Donald Trump’s actions “mentally retarded”. Kamala Harris responded with a laugh and “well said”. She later responded to criticism on the matter with an apology.
I bring up these two women, Cardi B and Kamala Harris, in particular, not to single them out (there are plenty more public figures using this word, Ann Coulter and NFL players, come to mind) but rather because they are both strong, independent women I otherwise respect. I think they are perfect examples of how rampant ableism is within our society, even coming out of the mouths of women with otherwise more progressive ideals.
The firmly established ableism in our society is also reflected by the history of R-word and its predecessors.
In 1910, there were three classifications for people with intellectual disabilities, as defined by the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons. These classifications were based off of a person’s IQ, a relatively new test at the time. People with an IQ ranging from 50 to 70 were considered “morons”. People with an IQ ranging from 25 to 50 were considered “imbeciles”. And the lowest category defined, with people whose IQs were below 25, was termed “idiots”.
During the time period these terms were first used, they weren’t considered offensive, despite the massive negative connotation they have today. The words were medical words, “moron” having been invented by one of the psychologists who helped develop the IQ scale.
What changed is the way society began using these words. Over time, people began using these previously medical words as insults. These insults became so common within our vernacular that most of us don’t even realize they have medical origins.
In response to the growing negative undertone of words like moron, imbecile, and idiot, the word “mental retardation” was first used in 1961. It was meant to be a more progressive, respectful word than what had previously been used, but the issue wasn’t with the words themselves, but rather with the way society viewed the intellectually disabled.
Just as quickly as before, people once again began using the word as a way to insult others. Even children on the playground call each other the R-word. And despite what some may think, every negative use of this term is an offense to the intellectually disabled community. When you call someone or something “retarded”, you are literally saying they are like people within the intellectually disabled community and that being like them is bad.
By 2013, The American Psychiatric Association removed the word “mentally retarded” from the DSM-V. But, the problem pertaining to the way society views the intellectually disabled community remains. I’ve already begun to see the words “intellectually disabled” used as an insult.
So while I urge people to stop using the R-word, the issue at hand really comes down to challenging the entirety of the language surrounding the disabled community. Making fun of someone for “riding the short bus” or having “special needs” is just as bad as using the R-word, even if there aren’t massive campaigns against it. I have even heard people use the word “autistic” as an insult and a synonym for stupid.
Until we end the root of the problem, this cycle of society using the disabled community as a punchline will continue. So, I ask much more of my readers and friends and family than a simple campaign to end the R-word. I charge you with reshaping your views of the disabled community entirely.