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The R-Word

Teach your kids not to say it


Published September 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

My brother Shane is funny, outgoing, social, caring and kind. He appreciates the smallest gestures — receiving a postcard, being invited to a party, being asked to help make dinner. He never thinks twice about showing his love; recently he took my husband's hand and placed it on his heart.

But cognitively speaking, Shane, who has cerebral palsy, is what we once called "mentally retarded." Through no fault of his own, his cognitive abilities are quite low. He can't do simple math, he can't read, he can't write, save for an approximation of his name. He has severe physical limitations as well — he can't walk, he can't really use his right hand, and his speech is impaired.

He and the millions of other individuals with intellectual disabilities already struggle with so many things. Why, then, is it so common to hear people using their plight as a derogatory term for when something is messed up? I'm hearing it more and more lately, even from elementary school-aged kids. The word "retarded" has become pervasive as a putdown. It's in songs (Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get Retarded"). It's on TV. When Lady Gaga was asked if her new song was a ripoff of a Madonna song, she called the comparison "retarded." Apparently, "Born This Way" applies to everyone except people with disabilities. (She has since apologized.)

When people use that word, I don't think they mean to attack those who are intellectually disabled. I know many otherwise kind and thoughtful people who use the R-word out of habit.

As with any habit, the best way to break it is to nip it in the bud, or, better yet, stop it before it starts. I'm not out to be the language police, and I don't mean to sound preachy; I have certainly used language I shouldn't have used. But in honor of my brother, and kids and adults like him, I want to ask you, as parents, to talk with your kids about the R-word. Ask them to consider what using it really means.

When you call something "retarded," you're taking a word that describes people who have been given limited opportunities in life, the least amount of independence, the least amount of normalcy, and you're using that word to say something is ... stupid.

When you use the word "retarded" as a putdown, you're saying something is so awful, so stupid, that it's as bad as my brother. Like, my brother is the ultimate low. Your computer isn't working? You might say, "This thing is so retarded!" You might as well be saying, "This thing is such a bad piece of equipment, it's like Shane!" When your teacher makes you angry, and you say, "He's so retarded," you could be saying, "He's so horrible, he's Shane."

Try substituting "retarded" with another condition that an individual has no control over.

"She's acting leukemia."

"He's multiple sclerosis."

"That's so breast cancer!"

Would you ever feel comfortable using these serious medical conditions this way?

When you stop and think about it, it's easy to understand why the R-word is hurtful. You can help your kids make the connection by talking about it in the same way you talk about insults based on race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

You can also help by introducing your children to a variety of different people. You could invite a classmate with disabilities and his or her parents over for lunch (parents of kids with disabilities often feel left out of normal social gatherings). If this is all new territory for you, be honest with the parents, and ask if their child will need any special accommodations.

If a classmate isn't an option, bring your kids to cheer at the Special Olympics, or at a Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports event. If you have a good time, consider volunteering with one of these organizations. It's much easier to explain to someone how the R-word can be hurtful if they personally know someone with disabilities.

There's been a lot that Shane hasn't been able to do during his lifetime. But he has made a lasting impression on friends, family and even strangers, showing them that those with disabilities have an immense capacity for love, acceptance and friendship. There's nothing stupid about that.

You can find teaching resources, and sign the pledge to stop using the R-word, at

Sky Barsch Gleiner is the publisher and editor of Vermont Sports magazine and "Use Your Words" is a monthly essay in which writers reflect on parenting and childhood.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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