The R-Word: A Branch From The Poisoned Tree

The word.  The r-word.


It is an ugly word.  No one calls someone else by that word as a gesture of respect or affection, do they?  There seem to be no shortage of arguments people use to defend the word’s use.

It isn’t personal.
No one means it like that anymore.
I’m talking about a thing, not your kid.
The world is too politically correct.
Don’t be the language police. 

I want to suggest here, to the person who uses that word and any derivations of it, that it is personal, you do mean it like that, you are talking about my kid, it isn’t about being politically correct, and asking for respect is not an act of policing the English language.

What are we talking about, then?  Here is where I think we get tripped up.  I think we are getting fixated on a single poisoned branch of a tree, not realizing that cutting off that one branch will not work in the long run.  I think we need to step back and look at what poison feeds that tree, really dig deep into what this word means.

I think the poison is that our culture is unreasonably obsessed with the idea of intelligence.  In modern parlance, the word “retard” has become the antithesis of intelligent; it is a sign of all things intellectually broken.

Tell me, then, what the difference is between these phrases:

That’s so stupid
That’s so retarded.

Oh my gosh, I feel like a retard for not getting that!
Oh my gosh, I feel like an idiot for not getting that!

She’s so dumb.
She’s a retard.

Yes, the word “retard” gets in there, and it feels all that much more violent, denigrating, and ugly.  That’s why I’ve written before that using the word is sort of like flying an “I make fun of intellectual disability” flag.  On the other hand, are these phrases so different, even without the word?  The attitude is the same, isn’t it?  Every one of those statements has an intellectually elitist message.

We live in a world that believes lack of a certain type of intelligence is categorically bad.  We decide to have a few laughs on the topic, and well, that is fine because stupid is bad, right?  And if I, personally, should have a little slip of memory, confusion, or misunderstanding, then I get to laugh about that small moment when I looked stupid, but I really wasn’t.  It is funny, because being smart is better, right?  Why is that funny?  

Curious, then, that we all seem to think that we, personally, fall within the limits of acceptable intelligence.  We all seem so quick to decide who and what else, is stupid, but never ourselves.  No, I’m not broken and stupid.  It is that person, over there.

We must to change our attitude and kick this intellectual elitism to the curb, or else we are simply pruning a poisonous tree.  It’ll keep growing and we will keep pruning.  Look at what has happened to the word “special.”  The term “special education” refers to education specific to the needs of some kids with disabilities.  Yet, how many times have you heard someone say in a derogatory way, “Oh, that’s special.”  That is no different than using the word retard.

The word “retard” is nourished by the intellectual elitism that pervades our thoughts, our language, our values.  Until we starve it out, that tree will grow new words, new slurs, new ways of hurt.

I’m talking about inside the disability community and outside of it.  I’m suggesting that we don’t put ourselves down as being stupid when we make mistakes or misunderstand things.  We don’t call people dumb, idiotic, or stupid when we disagree or think their opinions uninformed.  We don’t make a big show about how physical disability involves just the body, implying that the mind and intellect is the most important thing in life.

We don’t need to hold up our kids with intellectual disabilities and insist, but they ARE smart!  The truth is, they might not be traditionally “smart”, and it shouldn’t matter one bit.  By going along with the premise that some intangible idea of intelligence is so all-important, we are playing a rigged game.

To my fellow parents in the disability community, I wish we could stop playing the intellect game.  Can’t we just walk away?  Let’s be proud of our kids’ accomplishments without making intellect into the holy grail of achievement.  To all of those who continue to use the word, to walk with that intellectually elitist attitude, please stop.  You just look like a jerk, and I’m sure you’re not.  (Well. Unless you are actually a jerk, and then there’s a bigger problem.  Good luck.)

Truly.  Let’s stop playing that game.  We can rewrite the rules.  Destroy that tree, plant a new one.  We can nourish that new tree with true, deep-rooted, equality.

Let’s not just end the word, let’s starve it out, along with any chance of its revival.

Let’s end the elitist attitude.  I don’t care what your IQ is, and I don’t care what my IQ is.  I don’t care if you can’t understand what I can.  I don’t care how fast or slow your mind processes information.  I don’t care how much you can or can’t memorize.  I don’t care how many big words you know, or whether you have no words at all.  We all have strengths and weaknesses.

We are equals.  Disabled, able-bodied, neurodivergent, neurotypical… equals.



  • Take the pledge to end the r-word.
  • The next time you hear someone using that word, or denigrating intellectual disability, say something.  Don’t let the poison spread.
  • Go to the Spread The Word website and grab a badge here.  Display it on your blog, use it as your social media profile pic, tape it on your forehead.  Don’t use super glue though.  Regular tape will do.  You’ve been warned.