Spread the Word to End the Word


Orla Levens '18

Levens’ brother, Lucas (13), pictured winning gold at the Special Olympics in May.

Retarded. It’s a word that I have to hear every day, uttered on the train, said in the streets, and echoed in the halls at Jones purely as a form of lamentation. A simple Google search of the word defines it as meaning “less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for one’s age,” or informally, “foolish or stupid.”

What’s key about this is that both terms, especially the second term, have been marked as offensive right there and then in the definition. So, why do I hear it being spoken so often, especially when it demeans people that often don’t know that the word is supposed to demean them?

My younger brother, Lucas, is 13-years-old. He has a chromosome disorder that is so rare that it is unnamed, and it’s only recognized by a series of numbers and letters: 17p13.3. He shares many tendencies with people on the autism spectrum: he has trouble digesting certain foods, has trouble sleeping, often has difficulties learning in school and doesn’t understand the context of many social situations. While he has a lot of social difficulties, he is still stuck behind the r-word’s label. The use of the r-word is harmful; it mocks the intelligence of a person with special needs and separates them from everyone else.

While the need to be politically correct has become increasingly desired in our country, the frequent use of the r-word has become increasingly overlooked.  Many intellectual disabilities defy separating categories such as race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. In popular culture, we focus on censoring words like the f-word, the s-word, and other words that demean other groups of people. However, the r-word is not talked about often or really taught by parents and educators as a word that is deemed offensive.

The entertainment industry, excluding those that use the r-word as a part of the historical context, still uses the word loosely just as a form of lamentation. For example, during my childhood, the song ¨Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas, released in 2005, ruled the radio airwaves. However, the song was actually released in 2003, under a different title: ¨Let’s Get Retarded.” And while the Black Eyed Peas haven’t actually released any major songs since 2011, it’s still relevant that the first (and Grammy-winning) song to sell 500,000 downloads originally contained demeaning lyrics to people with disabilities.

The overuse of the r-word could also be attributed to the unfair portrayal in the media of people with disabilities. People with special needs are either portrayed as a hero miraculously overcoming their disabilities (especially in sports movies), more commonly as a victim, or even a villain. More than 80 percent of the U.S. adults surveyed felt that media portrayals were an obstacle to the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, according to the 2003 Multinational Study of Attitudes toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities. While the usage of the word in mainstream media has decreased since the days of the Black Eyed Peas, portrayals of people with disabilities still remain accurate in today’s culture.

In addition to the frequent use of the r-word in everyday vocabulary and continued inaccurate media portrayals, the future living conditions of people with disabilities are uncertain. While the country looks for change in the faces of the 2016 candidates, the issues of lack of employment, living conditions, and educational opportunities for people with special needs are glossed over or completely disregarded by said candidates.

Only three of the 23 declared 2016 primary candidates have explicitly mentioned special education or disability rights in their campaign advertisements or platforms. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have or had pages on their respective campaign websites advocating for better opportunities for people with disabilities, but both sections are or were short and extremely vague. It still leaves me uncertain about the future of people with disabilities and leaves me with no comfort whatsoever.

The only Republican to publicly mention disability rights has since dropped out. Jeb Bush, however, only truly mentioned this as a form of attack on his competitor, Donald Trump. Trump, on the other hand, is a nightmare for disability rights. Not only does he plan to cut trillions from the Department of Education, which could hurt special education, he openly advocates for the false belief that vaccines cause autism, in which there is no scientific evidence to support and was even retracted. In addition to this, Trump allegedly mocked a reporter with a physical disability, which was what Jeb Bush was responding to in the first place.

While it’s unlikely that the use of the word will de-integrate itself from modern slang any time soon, the process of diminishing the word in our culture is to re-evaluate media portrayal of people with special needs, start educating people on offensive and dehumanizing words in general, advocating for more opportunities for people with disabilities, and individually pledging to remove the r-word from our everyday vocabulary.