“What you call people is how you treat them”: the significance of the r-word campaign

Spread the Word to End the WordToday is the day to raise awareness about the R-word campaign, led by Special Olympics and Best Buddies. You can sign the pledge here to make “retard” and “retarded” go the way of the “N-word” and become the “r-word.” It is a significant campaign, even if some consider it mere semantics or political correctness. 

No matter the obvious civility that the campaign calls for, there will still be those adamant that “retard” and “retarded” are not offensive or, even if they are, those words should still be able to be used without condemnation. These fans of “retarded” are vocal, nowhere more so than here on the inter webs. A simple Google search for “retarded” turns up related searches for “retarded jokes” and “retarded test” and several others. A random sampling of comments on YouTube or celebrity news sites will also return a high hit-content for any search for the “r-word.” Hence the need for the campaign.

Fortunately, in my everyday life, I hardly ever hear “retard” or “retarded.” Having a daughter with Down syndrome who is now 8 years old likely has something to do with that. Over the years, when someone would say something was “retarded,” a simple follow-up conversation in private usually not only resulted in the speaker eliminating that word from his or her vernacular, but often would result in a donation or volunteer effort with my local charity (with that being completely unsolicited on my part, making their donation of time or money all the more touching and appreciated).

But, that is among people who I surround myself with. I mentioned in an earlier post how my wife and I still hear the “r-word” when out in public, and still do not know how to always appropriately address its usage. Beyond just public utterances, the “r-word” remains replete in everyday television shows, movies, and by news commentators. Fortunately, though, public policy has made strides to legislate against the use of the “r-word” and the reasons for doing so demonstrate why the campaign is so significant.

Initially, public policy measures began at the state level. States around the nation, from Oklahoma to Maryland to my home state of Kentucky just last year, passed legislation to replace “mental retardation” in public documents and titles with “intellectual and developmental disabilities.” These efforts, particularly the Maryland one, then rose to the federal level.

President Obama & Senator Mikulski with Rosa's family at bill signing ceremony.

President Obama & Senator Mikulski with Rosa’s family at bill signing ceremony.

In 2010, President Obama signed “Rosa’s Law,” named after a  young girl with Down syndrome whose parents had been the driving force behind the Maryland law. Their state’s senator Barbara Mikulski then took their effort to the national level, and it passed on a bi-partisan basis. At the signing ceremony, President Obama shared why changing the language was so important.

Referring to what Rosa’s brother Nick had shared, President Obama said at the signing ceremony:

But I want everybody to hear Nick’s wisdom here.  He said, “What you call people is how you treat them.  If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude towards people with disabilities.”  That’s a lot of wisdom from Nick.

Indeed. Our nation has had to learn this lesson several times over. No longer do we use the litany of racial slurs applied to our fellow citizens who are African-American; the term “wetback” had been so commonly used that it was part of a federal operation in the 1950’s, but no longer would that term be acceptable; and, while it is still common to describe something as being “gay,” the other epithets for homosexuals are used with less frequency (and to the extent they are not, those terms should also join the “n-word” and the “r-word”).

So, let those who do not care if they give offense persist in saying “retard” and “retarded.” And, let Special Olympics, Best Buddies, and many others advocate for those words to become the “r-word.” If history is any indication, I’m confident of whose side will win out, and, fortunately, that will mean my daughter may avoid being called that word as she enters middle school in the coming years.



  1. […] and appreciate it.  Again, changing the language reflects the wisdom of Rosa’s brother Nick, quoted by President Obama when signing Rosa’s Law that changed all references to “mental […]

  2. […] I wrote about at this post this time last year, President Obama and state governors have removed “mental […]

  3. […] shows he’s as enlightened as Sweaty Teddy, Ted Nugent, who recently, repeatedly, used the R-word in an obscenity laced on-line post, just prior to being scheduled to join Gov. Sarah Palin on her […]

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