The “R” Word -Version 2014

rwordToday is the national awareness day for the campaign “Spread the Word to End the Word” sponsored by Special Olympics, Best Buddies International. It’s a wonderful opportunity to think about your personal habits as well as create a discussion opportunity among our “typically developing” youth who are peers.

To hop on the awareness train, this is the time of year that I dust off this post and bring it out for all to read again.

You can read the original post in the link above. I’m posting a slightly edited version below.

Additionally, John C. McGinley (of Scrubs fame) is a father of a child with Down Syndrome and wrote this thoughtful piece in the Huffington Post.


“The R-Word” 

Originally published August 29, 2011 (edited to incorporate events that have happened since)

I’ve struggled for some time trying to decide if I wanted to write this post or not.

It’s time.

Something that you may or may not know about me is that I really really really really REALLY dislike our society’s colloquial use of the word “retarded.” I inwardly cringe every time I hear someone say, “That’s retarded,” “You’re so retarded,” “Stop being retarded.”

I rarely call people out on it because I understand that 99% of you mean no harm whatsoever. You undoubtedly adopted your style of speaking from your peers, and I can honestly say that just about everyone in high school uses the “R” word in some capacity.

But here’s the thing that you might not understand. Your use of the word carries a distinct connotation. And that connotation is “bad,” “other,” “wrong.”

Think of the times you usually use the word “retarded.” It’s when you’re annoyed by someone or something. It’s your way of writing someone or something off. It’s your way of ending the discussion and refusing to see beyond what you already think you know.

Now, please, try to see how this affects someone who has a diagnosis of mental retardation. You are writing them off. You are labeling them “bad,” “other,” “wrong.”

You probably don’t agree with me. “It’s just a word! I don’t mean anything by it! It’s just something I say.”

But don’t you see? Words have power. Even the words that we don’t think mean anything.

With your words, you have the power to label someone with mental retardation, someone who needs a little extra love, a little extra understanding, a little extra compassion as “bad,” “other,” and “wrong.”

In addition to his diagnosis of autism, my brother has an accompanying diagnosis of mental retardation (now commonly referred to as intellectual disability).

So you see why I feel like a tiny dagger is pricking my heart every time I hear someone’s flippant use of the “R” word.

Does Dude understand that 5 x 6 = 30? I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think he does.

However, he can kick your butt in harmonizing, he LOVES going to Maryland football and basketball games, he loves the beach, he has a memory like an elephant when it comes to quoting movies, and he loves his family and his ever-growing circle of acquaintances very much.

How are any of those things “bad,” “other,” or “wrong?”


I wish I could say that I am one of those wonderful typical siblings who never used the “R” word.. Who was able to see the big picture. I’m not. And I am ashamed by that. I used it (I’d like to think sparingly) in high school because that’s how my friends talked and, like any teenager, I wanted to fit in.

By college, I had more or less eliminated it from my vocabulary. However, I distinctly remember the last time that word escaped my lips. Actually, I didn’t even speak it. I typed it out while talking to a friend online in October 2007 while sitting at my desk in my dorm room in Hagerstown Hall.

As soon as I typed it. I regretted it. I don’t know what prompted me to use that word, a word I hadn’t used for so long. I actually remember quickly typing to my friend, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I just said that.”

I am so thankful I was talking to this particular person because he called me out on it. Instead of saying, “Oh lol. No biggie,” he said, “Yea I’m really surprised you said that. I didn’t expect that from you of all people, Julianne.”

It was one of those moments. Like the moment you realize you are absolutely done with a bad relationship or when you decide you’ve had your last cigarette.


Please. Maybe this can be your moment. Maybe not.

I promise I won’t call you out if you use it in front of me — unless you use it with the intention to make fun of my brother or anyone like him. In that case, prepare yourself, because you are going to get an earful.

Otherwise, you’re entitled to your speech. I’m quite ecstatic to say that I’ve noticed people in my circles make a conscious effort to eradicate this word from their vocabulary.. at least in my presence, if not in general. I’ve inwardly smiled when I’m speaking with someone and hear them say, “It was so re—frustrating.” “Ugh! He’s re–stupid.”

I’ve had people who are truly wonderful individuals say it out of habit in my presence. More often than not, I see the regret in their eyes as the word is escaping their lips. They know they’re good people. They know they don’t mean it. And now, because I write about this and post it to social media when I think the world could use a reminder, they know it hurts me even when I stay quiet.

The fact that I see people trying to change their habits means more than I can say. Like I said earlier, 99% of the people in my life are good people. They have no ill intentions. They don’t mean to disparage Dude. They think Dude is a rock star. The fact that they’re responding in the face of awareness is a testament to their good natures.

So, for those of you who didn’t know this about my family and the special needs community, I thought that having some extra knowledge may inform your decisions going forward.

I thought you should know what we in the special needs community feel when you use words that are “just” words and don’t “mean” anything.


One thought on “The “R” Word -Version 2014

  1. Julianne, I am so proud of you for this posting. I applaud your honesty and bravery for admitting you actually used this word in those awkward teen years. Fighting back tears, I, too, will admit uttering this word while bickering with my three sisters during our growing-up years. We had no idea what the future would hold. Who knew I would be the proud mother of a son with autism and MR (now referred to as ID) and his aunts would watch him grow into the remarkable young man he is today, as you so eloquently described him.

    When I recall our ignorant use of that word, tears of shame fill my eyes and the daggers of guilt still pierce my heart so many years later.

    My advice to anyone out there who has used this word or have children who may find this word acceptable and harmless to use among friends, please consider making a concerted effort to make a change today to obliterate this word from your vocabulary . . . so that some day in the future you may not live to regret it.

    The mentally-challenged individuals are living and thriving in your midst every day. Perhaps as you challenge yourself to eliminate the R-word from your vocabulary, you may also challenge yourself to acknowledge any one of these individuals with a kind work as they work diligently in your communities. You will boost their self confidence and enjoy a warm feeling in your heart as each opportunity presents itself.

    So proud, Mom

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