The Great “R-word” Debate: Is It Ever Okay to Say?

by Vicki Santillano

The Great “R-word” Debate: Is It Ever Okay to Say?

As if the nation weren’t already shaken by Dr. Laura’s wildly racist rant in August 2010, Jennifer Aniston had to go and rock the boat even more by using the word “retard” in an interview just a week later. “Yes, I play dress-up! I do it for a living, like a retard,” she joked on Live! with Regis and Kelly on August 19. The audience laughed, but many people around the country failed to see the humor in her self-deprecating comment. That’s because she used a word that’s almost as divisive and contentious as the n-word. But while most people agree on the absolute inappropriateness of the n-word, the public is surprisingly divided on whether it’s okay to say “retard” or “retarded” pejoratively.


Just look at the response to Aniston’s offhand remark: plenty have called her insensitive and have demanded everything from a public apology to a boycott of her movies. But a sizable number of other people say it’s not a big deal; they argue that the word (in noun or adjectival form) doesn’t mean what it used to, that it has nothing to do with the intellectually disabled anymore. But does that make it okay?


“Retard” and “retarded” are used so often in conversations that the Special Olympics and Best Buddies International teamed up in 2009 to create the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, asking people to pledge not to use the r-word ever again. How can a term that’s so emotionally loaded for some become an acceptable part of the vernacular for others?


Shifting Away from Controversy
Jennifer Aniston’s r-word woes are nothing new; in the past few years, other celebrities have come under fire for their use of the word as well. A group of protestors went to the Tropic Thunder movie premiere in 2008 because a character uses the word “retard.” More recently, the Wall Street Journal quoted White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel using the word “retarded” to describe a plan suggested in a meeting. He apologized publically to Special Olympics chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver soon after and actually took the organization’s r-word pledge. Even President Obama hasn’t been exempt from backlash: after describing his bowling skills as “like Special Olympics, or something” on The Tonight Show in 2009, Obama made a personal phone call to Shriver and apologized.



Despite the uproar surrounding them, instances like these show just how casually the word is thrown around in our society. But not everyone thinks of that as a problem, especially because “retard” is used more as a synonym for “stupid” than it is to describe the intellectually disabled. It’s true that the word is no longer used in many official documents and legalese; the Special Olympics made the switch from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disabilities” in 2004 at the behest of its athletes, who felt the word only fueled “playground taunts” at this point. In addition, the American Association on Mental Retardation became the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in 2007; one of the reasons given for the name change was that “it is less offensive to persons with disabilities.” And in August 2010, the U.S. Senate passed “Rosa’s Law,” which will replace all references to “mental retardation” in federal laws with “intellectual disability.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have already made the switch.


“Retard” is going the way of “idiot,” “imbecile,” “feeble-minded,” and other once-official words now considered merely negative, and that’s because (like those other words) it’s used too widely as an insult now. “It used to be a label used exclusively for those people with a very low IQ, and marked a division between those who had what we considered average intelligence or above, and those who would be considered mentally deficient … Now it seems to have become a blanket term for anyone who doesn’t measure up to another person’s standards, which [other teachers and I] feel is very unfortunate,” says a teacher I spoke with who works with intellectually disabled students. “I don’t believe most people who use the label actually think about our kids, but they should, because its use is a disservice to them.”


A Weighty Matter Remains
When issues like these are brought to light, it really makes us step back and consider our own thoughts and actions. The r-word is but one of many terms that hit a nerve in some and are perfectly fine to others. And just as other offensive words have been phased out of acceptable public vernacular, it’s possible that people won’t use the r-word so flippantly in the future. In a BBC survey from a few years back, it was voted the most offensive word used to describe disabilities. And as of March 2010, the Special Olympics made its initial goal of getting one hundred thousand pledges against the r-word on its Web site—and that number’s no doubt grown even more after the Aniston debacle.


It’s also possible that the word’s casual use will only increase after it’s been completely removed from official documents and organizations. Maybe someday “retard” will carry about as much emotional weight as “stupid,” and eventually it won’t be an issue over. A word’s connotation—of which there can be many—can change over time. But as Aniston’s on-air slip proves, the word’s acceptability and potential for inflicting hurt are still very much up for debate.