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The R-word

The Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council has started a campaign addressing both speech and attitude.

Dawn Watson September 12th, 2012

Ten years ago, the word “retarded” didn’t mean much to Erin Taylor.

Erin Taylor and her son Henry
Credit: Mark Hancock

It was just another word she or her family may have used or heard. Today, as she raises a 10-year-old son with a cognitive disability, she’s teaching her four other children — and herself — just how much the word means.

“Was I always that mother? The truth is I wasn’t. The blessing of Henry was that I learned that lesson,” Taylor said. “What’s important is that you grow.”

Taylor and others like her are supporting the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s “The R-Word Hurts” Campaign. The grassroots effort focuses on removing the R-word from both clinical and everyday language and replacing it with more accurate and less hurtful words.

Council members encourage people to stop using the word, to ask others to stop and to take an action pledge at okddc.ok.gov.

Ann Trudgeon, ODDC executive director, said the campaign started in March of this year. As they researched the slang use of the R-word, she and other advocates discovered that the word often is not directed at a person. People grew up hearing the word and using it to mean something like “ridiculous,” she said.

“That’s a tougher nut to crack,” she said. “If we devalue people as ‘retarded’ or ‘a retard,’ we devalue their humanity.”

Changing vocabularies
Trudgeon said it is important to understand that even if the word is not directed at someone, it is still dehumanizing to people with a disability.

“We want it to be so ugly that people won’t use it. We have plenty of words that mean ridiculous. We don’t need the R-word,” she said. “It’s not political correctness. It’s just respect.”

Taylor said she didn’t pay much attention to the use of the word until her youngest child, Henry Weathers, began showing signs of cognitive disability. He has an acquired brain injury because, for several years, an undetected congenital heart condition deprived his brain of sufficient oxygen.

Watching him grow made Taylor more aware of the word’s impact.

“I always thought of the R-word as an antiquated word that doctors used. I never thought of it as hate speech,” Taylor said. Then it became more personal. “It began to feel like when people said, ‘That’s so retarded,’ what they meant was, ‘That’s so Henry.’” She said she wants people to be aware of the need to change but rejects the notion that they should feel guilty about what they may have said in the past.

“When you know better, you do better,” Taylor said. “People want to change when they feel good about their choices.”

Eliminating the word
Brian Smith, who has cerebral palsy, said he wasn’t exposed to use of the R-word much until college.

“Being a normal college kid, I was exposed to that. It was nonchalant,” said the 25-year-old. “It’s the attitude with the R-word. You’re telling them that you’re not really valuing their opinion. Why not eliminate the word entirely so that no one gets their feelings hurt?

Ann Trudgeon

“You focus on the abilities. We all have disabilities. That’s just one piece of their life and they shouldn’t be defined by that.”

Trudgeon said efforts like the R-Word Hurts campaign can help people change.

“We know it’s just going to take some time. We also know that people don’t think it’s mean, especially when they aren’t referring to a specific person with a disability,” she said. “I think people are opening their minds. People are getting it.”

The website rwordhurts.com hosts personal testimonials and videos. At r-word.org, organizations and individuals can purchase signs, brochures and stickers to help share the message with others.

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