The most recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary recorded 171,476 words currently in use in the English language.
Of those 171,476 words, there are certainly plenty of curses and demeaning terms. However, the word “retard(ed),” also known as the “R-word,” has been transformed from a medical description to a term synonymous to a lack of intelligence, which is not only incorrect and invalid, but should not be used in written or spoken communication.
R-Word.org, a website supported by the Special Olympics that accepts commitments to stop the usage of this word, determines that the R-word is hurtful because it is “exclusive, offensive and derogatory.”
As previously mentioned, the word began as a clinical explanation for someone with mental or physical disabilities. “Mental retardation” referred to a child or adult who had a medical condition such as Autism or Down Syndrome, and surely did not start as a term that was meant to be offensive. The word derives from the Latin “retardāre” which means to be slow and, again, was not intended to be rude. As language evolved and time went on however, the R-word shifted from a clinical term to a term equivalent to stupidity and used in this context to offend and harm those it references.
More recently still, the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign has taken off with support on social media and from elementary and high schools. It has been brought to people’s attention that using the R-word is unacceptable. This movement is also sponsored by the Special Olympics, and outlines that even when this word is not being used in relation to someone with a disability, it is still hurtful.
A study done in 2010 by the Special Olympics found that “92 percent of young Americans (ages eight to 18) report having heard the R-word used, while 36 percent have heard the word used specifically toward someone with an intellectual disability.”
These statistics, while astounding on their own, exemplify the ever-changing fluctuation and flow of language today. The people these young Americans have heard the R-word from are most likely their parents, grandparents and teachers; while it is much less acceptable to use the R-word today, when older generations were growing up, there was no negative connotation, which is probably why many of them still use this word.
However, because language does change every generation, and because of the prevalence of technology in today’s society, there is no excuse for someone using the R-word. If members of the Baby Boomer generation, Generation X or even Generation Y can grasp concepts like “photobomb,” “binge-watch” or one of the other 28 new words added to the dictionary last year, surely they can manage not using the word “retarded” to describe something or someone lacking intelligence.
Former President Barack Obama recognized the dichotomy of language with the R-word and signed bill S.2781, or “Rosa’s Law,” into federal law on Oct. 5, 2010. Rosa’s Law, according to the Special Olympics website, “removes the terms ‘mental retardation’ and ‘mentally retarded’ from federal health, education and labor policy and replaces them with people first language ‘individual with an intellectual disability’ and ‘intellectual disability.'” People first language refers to a person who has a condition, rather than letting the condition define them. Another key part of this law was the idea that the erasure of this word from federal policy does not equal an erasure of aid for people with special needs.
Children and adults with special needs are not unintelligent or incompetent, and they should be loved and cared for in the same way as every other human being. In caring for them, it only makes sense to curtail all usage of the word “retard.” If you’re looking for a word that is synonymous with “stupid” or “dumb,” surely you can find one from the 171,476 words in the dictionary that are in use today.