My Take on “The R Word”

My Take on “The R Word”

Neda Ulaby of NPR produced an interesting story on the use of profanity in cable TV shows.  The story is enjoyable if for nothing other than the creative way they choose to refer to the top two words most censored:  s*** and f***.  Beyond that, the story examines the liberties cable TV shows have to use s***, but not f***.  And not because of an FCC guideline; rather because “It’s just basically people in suits making up the rules,” says Kurt Sutter, creator of Sons of Anarchy on FX.  It’s a great story, but instead of spending time on the wild west of nighttime cable drama, I’ll use this as a segue toward a related topic.  In the same interview, Sutter said he is also not allowed to use the word retard.  I want to explore why this might be off limits for cable.

My son has Down syndrome.  At least once a week, someone around me uses the word retarded.  Every time this happens, I cringe.  Many of these people are caring, loving and dear to me.  They know my son and would never say anything to hurt him or me.  So why does this happen and why am I offended?


The only thing I can figure out is that their use of the term never lines up with its definition.  I hear uses like this:

  • “You are so retarded!”
  • “That meeting was so retarded!”
  • “That show is so retarded!”

In these contexts, they’re saying something is ridiculous, stupid, or wasteful; but retarded means none of those things.  Retarded means delayed and when referencing a person, it usually means that they have a cognitive or mental delay.  But what I hear is “You are so stupid, like [my son]” or “That meeting was such a waste, like [my son].”  I’m embarrassed for putting words in their mouths because I know that’s not what they mean.  But I also know what they don’t mean.  They don’t mean delayed because most likely the person, the meeting and the show were not delayed, or slow.  They’re referencing the behavior associated with someone who is intellectually disabled.  It’s the only logical explanation.  My son will likely exhibit this kind of behavior well into his adult life.  That’s why I’m offended.

IMG_1275I’m not the type to rest my feelings on my sleeve, nor am I easily offended.  Further, I’m turned off by the overly defensive nature of folks who are offended by the smallest things.  And here I am…offended by something said by good people who care about me.  And my son.

IMG_0937Why would they say this?  Don’t they understand that it’s a hurtful thing to hear?  The answer is no.  They don’t.  They can’t possibly or else they wouldn’t say it.

This is why I haven’t said anything.  I think they would be embarrassed and mortified at how their choice of words has affected me.  And that’s why I’m writing.  I want to make the point that saying retarded is offensive, because I’m convinced that most do not know they are saying something offensive.  I would want to know.

IMG_0938And no, I do not think its use should land someone in prison, get a student suspended, or be banned altogether (like that’s possible).  On the web, it’s easy to find entire websites dedicated to the end of “the R word.”  That’s not at all where I’m coming from.  I sometimes say things that would offend certain people.  IMG_0910However, when I’m aware, I don’t say them around the people they’ll offend.  For example, profanity is very effective when used in the right context.  However, when used in the wrong context, the offense caused might overshadow the point being made.  I have come to realize that most of the people who say retarded simply do not know it is offensive.  I’m writing to inform those people.IMG_1093

For all of you who use the term with the knowledge of how offensive it is…by all means, keep it up.  For all of you who use the term directly to or around a person who is intellectually disabled for the purpose of being hurtful…by all means, keep it up.  You are the subject of an entirely different post.  I’m not writing this for your benefit.  I’m writing this for people who have no idea the word is hurtful.  I’ve heard this point made:  “If you outlaw retarded, people will just use another word to offend that was previously associated with the disabled in a clinical and non-offensive way.  That’s what mean people have always done.”  This is true.  As the songwriter said, “all you are is mean.”  And you have the right to be just that.

IMG_1057Most of my friends, colleagues and family members are not mean.  Most of them would abstain from using f*** in a public setting because it would be unprofessional and offensive.  I only want to make them aware that r******* is no different.




  1. catherine
    Mar 5, 2014

    Love this. Thank you for sharing. Love that sweet boy too!! Can’t wait to read more.

  2. Major
    Mar 13, 2014

    Great read. When I lived in Nashville our school held one of the “Ban the R Word” conferences. I disagreed with the banning of any word. I even thought about writing a blog about it but didn’t think I would do it justice. You have put my thoughts into words.

    In 50 to 100 years if people are still saying the phrase “The N. Word.” Many people may forget what the N stood for. All they know now is that “You’re an N. Word!!!” That will become the insult. All along not knowing what the N means. If you ban Retarded then do you ban Tardy? I say that word most days to some of my students. Being used in the correct context but a derivative of Retarded. Do we ban Flame Retardant? No, we educate people on the proper use of words. I have also heard people say the phrase “Your Special.” Next it will be “Ban the S. Word!”

    I am for educating people on decency, respect for others, kindness, selfless acts and appropriate talk and behavior in all circumstances. I am for educating people that everyone is formed in the image of God. And when you slander, hurt or neglect others you are doing the same to Christ.

    You’re right, there will always be mean people. However, there will always be more people doing good. Thank you for your thoughts on this and keep writing.

    Major Chisholm

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