Language matters. It is powerful and influential and has the ability to change lives and experiences. Our society is built on language—it dictates how we communicate with one another, how we learn about the world around us, and how we build relationships and foster positive interactions. Our words, and how we use them, fluctuate and change over time. Slang rises and falls, words go in and out of fashion, and we learn about more inclusive and accepting language almost every day.
As we begin to understand the world around us better, we also understand that some words are antiquated, harmful, and just flat out wrong—which is why I’ve been sad and frustrated to hear the use of the r-word on campus more times in the past few months than I have in my entire life. It is a word that is wrong, harmful, and should be recognized for what it is: a toxic slur that shouldn’t be used.
Nowadays, some people think of it as a synonym for “stupid” or “idiot.” However, the history of the r-word is rooted in ableism and the “othering” of those with disabilities. While it was once used in a medical context, the meaning of the r-word has culturally shifted, becoming a demeaning term that perpetuates the outdated idea of those with intellectual disabilities being “less than” or “other.” In a Denver Post op-ed, Special Olympics ambassador John Franklin Stevens writes about his negative experiences with the r-word as a man with Down Syndrome. He says that to him, “It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be…We are someone that is not your kind.”
When you use the r-word, you are implying that those with intellectual disabilities are less than, and you are stereotyping them as unintelligent. The r-word isolates those with intellectual disabilities, even when not used to reference them. While the use of this kind of language may have lessened face-to-face, it persists on social media, where the Special Olympics reports that across social platforms, every 6 in 10 posts[a][b] contain some sort of slur, while 7 in 10 posts are “are negative toward people with intellectual disabilities.” We know that bad and offensive language leads to discrimination and stigma, so why are we still using it?
As society progresses towards more inclusive and understanding language, we have to understand that there is no point in using the word. In addition to there being other ways to describe a scenario that may be “uncool,” the r-word has been almost abandoned in the medical field. According to CNN, in 2010 President Obama passed a bill that abolished the use of the word in labor, federal health, and education laws. It’s not in our laws, it’s not in our doctor’s offices, and it shouldn’t be in our homes. There’s no use for it anymore. Many words exist in the English language that are fine when describing a negative scenario. The r-word, both outdated and offensive, is not fine. If I have heard this word so many times in public, by people who I don’t even know, what about hidden away in dorms? What about over social media? What about in private or in texts?
We have to stop the use of the r-word. When we let this word permeate through our language, we are participating in the perpetuation of a stigma. We can do our best to call individual people out in their use of this word—in fact, we should—but we also need to address the structures that allow language like this to flourish and create stigma in the first place. We have to improve our understanding and awareness of those with intellectual disabilities, and educate people that their language matters. There are clear steps we must take to do this, whether we are creating educational programs about the impact of the r-word, increasing visibility of those with intellectual disabilities, or supporting campaigns, such as Spread the Word, that fight for inclusion and against stigmatization. We can use our language to lift others up, or to tear them down, and it is our duty to create a positive and educated culture around these issues. There’s no need to say this word. So, as the slogan says, we have to “Spread the Word to End the Word.”