Language barrier: ‘R-word’ campaign hopes to change hearts and minds


Sticks and stones, right? Not so much with the “R-word,” which has speared an education initiative to help promote inclusivity for the developmentally disabled.

It’s a common ritual for teenagers.

The football team is horsing around, all pumped up for the game. It’s Homecoming. Several girls are taking pictures on their phones.

“Gosh, we look so retarded,” one of them blurts out as they make faces upon seeing the Snapchat image.

Everyone agrees, so they delete the photo immediately, ashamed to have any evidence of looking that way.

But what does “looking retarded” mean? Why that specific word?

It’s exactly what the “Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign” is aiming to educate the public about, and ultimately, put a stop to.

Power of language

The dictionary defines the word retarded as “less advanced in mental, physical or social development than is usual for one’s age.” However, it’s used so flippantly by the public that retarded has become a synonym for “stupid” or “dumb” while maintaining direct association with the developmentally disabled community.

Caty Dongoske, a schools and initiatives associate at Special Olympics Minnesota, said “using the ‘R-word’ is like using any other slur or insult. It is just as offensive and hurts a huge group of people in our society.

(An) “athlete told me that at their work they have co-workers who openly use the R-word in a derogatory and hurtful way, often referring to their coworkers as ‘R-words’… It made the athlete self-conscious, made them hate going to work and caused them to second-guess their ability to do their job.”

Allyson Perling, a St. Paul resident, recently had a negative experience with the “R-word” upon bringing her 12-year-old daughter to a new eye doctor.

While there, the doctor said, “I have lots of experience with kids who are severely mentally retarded”—except she didn’t know her child’s diagnosis, history or intellectual capacity. That she said it in front of her daughter, who Perling said is “very smart” and understood exactly what the word implied, made it even more insulting.

“I have never, ever heard this word used in a positive way or to compliment someone,” Perling said.

Any form of the “R-word” is unacceptable according to the worldwide “Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign,” which encourages the public to sign a pledge at The campaign’s goal is to eliminate its use and “(create) more accepting attitudes and communities for all people. Language affects attitudes, and attitudes affect actions.”

Or as Karleigh Jones, a Special Olympics athlete from New Zealand said on the website, “(The word) alienates and excludes. It also emphasizes the negative stereotypes surrounding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; the common belief that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities should be segregated, hidden away from society.”

Cece Gillis, an advisor for the Connecting All Together Socially (CATS) group at River Falls High School, said “most people don’t connect the word with a group of people, and they usually say, ‘I am sorry.’ Most people, adults included, don’t have a clue the word is offensive … (they) truly don’t know and don’t mean to be hurtful.”

Yet kids and teens hear others saying it, so they say it. Monkey see, monkey do.

Bonnie Yang, a sophomore at Johnson High School in St. Paul, has heard the “R-word” used to describe her 12-year-old brother, Matthew, who has developmental disabilities. She said it takes personal experience to understand why the word is “so offensive.”

“My relationship with my brother is really close. And actually, during the summer, my cousins came over and asked, ‘Why is Matthew so retarded?’” Yang said.

“I was like, ‘What? He’s not retarded. He just learns slower.’ I always have to tell people, ‘He’s the same as us. He just learns differently.’”

She also acknowledges that not every teenager (or adult, for that matter) “is mature enough to know how it can affect someone.” When asked how she would educate others to describe her brother, Yang simply said, “He’s special.”

Education and outreach

That CATS at River Falls is partially run by teens helps incorporate their involvement and paves the way for fellow students to take a stand against the “R-word,” Gillis said. At Special Olympics Minnesota, the “Spread the Word” campaign also encourages schools to be creative with outreach efforts.

A favorite, Dongoske said, is to hold a school-wide assembly. In November, the group held one at Forest Lake High School for 1,500 students and featured a combination of speeches from Special Olympics athletes, students with intellectual disabilities from Forest Lake, videos, live music, a banner signing and more.

“The student-driven vision of ‘Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign’ is essential to the campaign’s message. We want our youth to be a driving force in the battle to end the use of the ‘R-word,’” Dongoske said.

Restricting speech

But will banning the word solve anything?

In a 2010 Washington Post editorial titled “Saying it is Hurtful. Banning it is Worse,” author and law professor Christopher M. Fairman wrote that attempting to eliminate “retarded” from all vocabulary isn’t the best way to address the problem.

“The words themselves are not the culprit; the meaning we attach to them is, and such meanings change dramatically over time and across communities,” wrote Fairman, who also noted that “gay and queer and even the N-word can be insulting, friendly, identifying or academic in different contexts.”

It’s also ironic to Fairman that “mental retardation” and its variants were originally an attempt to convey greater dignity and respect than previous labels had. While he acknowledged that the word has taken on more negativity in the past decade, Fairman argued that “restricting speech of any kind comes with a potential price.”

“Words are ideas, and we should be reluctant to surrender any of them,” Fairman wrote. “Freedom of expression has come at a dear price, and it is not worth abridging, even so we can get along a little better.”

Dongoske disagrees. To her, the “R-word” will always promote the misconception that developmentally disabled people do not have anything in common with “normal” members of society.

“They have jobs, go to school, play sports and work hard just like everyone else. When people use the ‘R-word,’ it takes away their power, self-esteem, confidence and breaks them down,” Dongoske said.

“Working … with our athletes has inspired me to fight harder for inclusion in our society. People with intellectual disabilities deserve the same rights, treatment and respect within our culture.”