“That’s so retarded!”
“Why are you acting like that? You look retarded.”
“Oh my gosh. I felt so embarrassed. I felt like a retard.”
These are just a few examples I’ve heard recently using the r-word both from middle school students and adults alike. As an educator, I tell my students not to use this word. But their reasoning is just “Mrs. Gideon doesn’t like that word.” I need to do a better job of explaining the impact of the r-word. So here are three ways the r-word has an impact on others when you say it, or allow others to say it.
- It offends people with disabilities, their families, and their friends.
I’m a special education teacher. Students with disabilities are kinda my thing, you know? I have interacted with their parents, their loved ones, and others who have a role in their lives. Using the r-word, even when referring to a situation or someone else, is hurtful! People with disabilities have a long history of being marginalized in our society. The r-word is used often to describe something inferior, stupid, or less. This is one of the reasons why the r-word IS a big deal. Even if you address a thing an action, you are loading your words with the history of people with special needs in the United States. It takes just a few seconds to think of someone you know or love with a disability – would you want them to be viewed as less or inferior?
- It excludes people from everyday, normal life.
The r-word can effectively exclude people with intellectual or physical disabilities. It has become so normal to use this word, that when I did a quick Google search, “retarded” had a second definition: an informal offense. I got pretty angry when I saw this, to be honest. It gave me the impression that when you look up this word in the dictionary, it is okay to say it because it’s just an informal offense. I fear that many will rationalize their use of the word with this mentality.
Use of the r-word limits the potential of people with disabilities. The idea is that because someone has a disability, they cannot do something. Guess what? I’ve seen people with disabilities accomplish more than some of their neurotypical peers, and even become more productive members of society. The Christian in me believes we were all created in God’s image and there are no people who are here by accident. That is my driving reason to be inclusive. There is no good reason to exclude people with disabilities. We should be lifting up others with physical or mental differences. As Larry Bell, a great speaker and former teacher says, “Different does not mean dumb!”
- The r-word indicates a lack of empathy.
Empathy is often a buzzword, especially in education. It is a necessary component of human interaction. I could not do my job effectively without a healthy amount of empathy. For me, I’ve always had a natural ability to put myself in the shoes of others. I had a hard time coming to terms with the idea that not everyone thinks this way or even knows where to begin. As adults, as educators, as parents, we must instill empathy in our children. To me, a lack of empathy is what makes the r-word okay. But it’s not. We should not be okay with hurting others. I also feel that I need to do a better job of weaving empathy into my teaching so that it is modeled effectively for students to understand.
I’ve thought a lot about this recently. Since I’m in a middle school, I hear it a lot. So I felt that if I hear it a lot, isn’t that an opportunity to educate and advocate? It should be. I’ll be thinking of ways to make an impact in my school and community, and drive others to be inclusive of our friends with disabilities. If you have suggestions, leave them in the comments!