What do you say when you hear the “R-word”?

SpreadTheWord The R-Word CampaignRecently, my wife and I went out for a nice evening. That was the intention, at least. Then, at dinner, we overheard from our neighboring table the “r-word.” I wonder, what do you say when you hear the “r-word”? 

For those wondering, the “r-word” is “retard” or “retarded.” For some time now, there has been a campaign, led mostly by Special Olympics, called “Spread the Word to End the Word.” Its intent is to make “r-word” become socially used as “n-word” is for the racial slur it stands for.

“Retard” and “retarded” are still used regularly, in everyday conversation and in public media. The most recent instance was on the eve of this year’s Superbowl, the Baltimore Ravens Quarterback (and ultimate Superbowl MVP) Joe Flacco described the NFL’s plans to hold the Superbowl next year at the Giants/Jets stadium as “retarded” because it would be too cold. Perhaps, the progress made already is evidenced by Flacco’s declarative apology the very next day for using the word, citing his involvement with Special Olympics.

It’s somewhat coincidental that our most recent instance of the “r-word” happened at a restaurant. Also, recently, there has been a lot of positive reporting about Michael Garcia, a waiter standing up for a young boy with Down syndrome. A man at a neighboring table told his family, “special needs kids should be kept in special places.” Garcia refused to serve them. Garcia, and his restaurant for standing behind him, have been flooded with praise, increased business, and tips–which Garcia has donated to the boy’s pre-school.

Well, that’s unlikely to happen for our situation. Earlier in the meal, I had thought I had heard our neighbors say “retarded,” but, perhaps being in denial, I wrote it off as me probably mis-hearing them. When we were almost ready to go, though, both my wife and I heard it unmistakably. We both paused, wondering whether we should say anything. But, then someone else at the table said “Down syndrome.”

We have been in these situations before. We have more often than not, decided to avoid a possibly awkward conversation by confronting the speaker, and when we have, it is more often in a private situation than in a public place where we choose to engage the speaker. And, so, this is why I pose the question of “what do you do when you hear the ‘r-word’?”

I ask because it turns out, in this case, our neighbors at the restaurant were not speaking disparagingly about something someone did. They were instead discussing generally what they termed “the statistics of having a child with genetic defects.” I have heard those sorts of conversations several times over at medical conferences where I was a presenter. But, out in a social setting, expecting nothing but a nice meal before taking in a show, even that sort of conversation, stacked on top of hearing “retarded,” did not present a situation where we could calmly discuss using “intellectual disabilities” rather than the “r-word.” I regret that, as it was an opportunity to share our experience with our daughter and possibly make some new friends.

And, so, I ask again, what have you done when you have heard the “r-word”? I ask because as much as I thought I was prepared for dealing with that situation, our recent dining out showed that I was not. Hopefully, your wisdom will help others who reflexively tense when we hear that word.

By the way, March 6 is the day this year chosen to mark the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. You can sign up for the petition and order swag for the campaign at this link.


  1. […] 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 […]

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