Saturday, March 6, 2010

On alternatives to the r-word

The ever-wise Annie from PhD in Parenting had such a fantastic response to this week's post on Spread The Word To End The Word day that it deserves its own post. Annie was answering a commenter's question about how replacing the r-word with another would help (and if you haven't yet taken the r-word pledge, go to it). Here's what Annie had to say:

The reason we need to get rid of the word retarded is that it is habitually used to make a derogatory remark about a person with an intellectual disability or is used to compare someone without an intellectual disability to someone with an intellectual disability in a derogatory fashion. The entire derogatory connotation behind the way the word is used in almost all contexts is the reason we need to get rid of it.

But what to replace it with? I think that depends on the context:

1) If you are using it as a descriptor for a person with an intellectual disability but in a context where no such descriptor is necessary (e.g. "Johnny, get out of the way, it's the retarded kid's turn to go down the slide") it should be replaced with another descriptor that doesn't reference the child's disability at all (e.g. "Johnny, get out of the way, it's the kid in the blue jacket's turn to go down the slide").

2) If you are using it as a descriptor for a person with an intellectual disability in a context where such a descriptor is necessary (e.g. explaining to a teacher's aide that "Jenny gets an extra 30 minutes to do her exam because she's retarded"), you could replace it with a term that does not have the same derogatory connotation (e.g. "Jenny gets an extra 30 minutes to do her exam because she has [an intellectual disability, a learning disability, or the name of the actual disability if relevant - e.g. dislexia, down's syndrome]"). For this, the Canadian government has a great publication called "A Way With Words and Images" and it includes an annex with the appropriate terminology to use to describe people with disabilities:

3) If you are using the word to insult yourself ("I'm so retarded"), choose words that are more descriptive e.g. "I lost track of time" or "I'm so forgetful" or "It's my fault. I'm sorry."

4) If you are using it to attack someone else's ideas or actions (e.g. "That was a retarded thing to say/do") then be more specific. Say "That doesn't make sense" or "You are going to regret that" or "That was an uninformed statement" or "Your arrogant/ignorant/baseless/feeble arguments are making me ill."

5) If you are using it to insult someone (e.g. "You're such a retard") then don't. Period. What do you have to gain by insulting someone else? If you really feel like someone is deserving of an insult, then at least use a non-ableist, non-bigoted one. There is a list here.

Rather than using "retard/retarded" as a catch-all and dumping people with special needs into a pot with the true ignorant jerks of the world, I think it is worth taking some time to think about what you really want to say and how to best say it.

Bravo, Annie.


  1. This is very well meant, I'm sure, but I find it incredibly un-useful.

    As for the first uses you focus on (1&2) it is (I like to think) generally understood that the r-word is a slur, and should not actually be applied to people without the intent to insult. I'm sure it happens, but there's not a great need to dwell on the replacements for the word in those contexts- I feel certain that they constitute a vast minority of the total uses of the word.

    For the other uses, I recognize that you don't approve of insults, and you probably particularly don't want people to use a word connected with people you love even replaced by an insult, but if the actual intent of a post like this is to get people to replace the r-word with something else, you're not going to get that to happen by trying to get them to completely change their speech habits. And are you really, genuinely suggesting that you call people "bozos" or "nincompoops", as suggested in the linked list of insults?

    "idiot" or "moron" are probably better replacements. Maybe those are ableist too (although, if they are, it's obscurely) but really, if you're telling people that they aren't ever allowed to insult other peoples' mental capacity, then you're just being unrealistic.

    1. This assumes that we only use the word "retarded" to insult people. That's a NOT a good thing to do in the first place, so don't! Some people actually are retarded. We need to be delicate with our language when it is necessary to refer to that fact in specific and very real situations.

      That word was originally fully acceptable, used to describe people who learn slowly or whose intellectual development is slow. They do exist, so we need some way to talk about it that doesn't insult anyone. "Retarded" was once a very clinical and neutral term that in other contexts still simply means "slowed" or "delayed". That is, after all, a very objective and accurate description of the reality.

      Over time, however, such terms often acquire much more negative connotations than were originally inherent in the word itself precisely because of their frequent misuse in society as insults. There are many examples of this kind of negative shift with widespread social abuse of certain terms or simply because they've been around a long time and we somehow feel a need to shift to another term.

      "Handicapped", for example, used to be fine and has no inherent negative connotation, since it meant exactly the same thing as a handicap placed against one side in a game as a penalty or to compensate for uneven odds or abilities. Now it has acquired negative connotations, apparently only because it has become arbitrarily associated with "incapacitated", which has negative connotations right at the outset.

      So you don't get a viable answer to this question by substituting other insulting terms for the original insult. It sounds like you never ever even considered any other use for such words. I guess maybe all you're capable of thinking about in this context is insulting people?

  2. Stefanie Sasinek-RoilMarch 6, 2010 at 1:51 AM

    Both 'idiot' and 'moron' are ablest, and not obscurely so. They are both outdated medical terms used to describe specific ranges of IQ scores or functional ability that were completely over taken by popular culture as insults and made offensive, the same way the r-word has. As such they replaced with other, less offensive terms by the medical community.

    Substituting one ableist slur for another isn't any less offensive.

  3. Great post! So happy to see that others are on the same mission to get rid of the r-word too. I was on it for years..and now more so that our youngest has special needs. Some great suggestions!Thanks to all on the mission!
    Also, while trying to get rid of the r-word, everyone, please remember to find alternatives for 'crazy' 'insane' etc - just as derogatory to people with mental health issues and unfortunately people still use these all of the time. This was pointed out to me a few years ago and now I really notice how much they are used. Another mission! :)
    Love this blog! Keep up the great work!

  4. In spirit I wholeheartedly agree. I particularly liked the link to insults. I can't wait to introduce my sons to some of those words. Definitely ROFL. However, there's a part of me that cringes with the word police. I agree that the world would be a better place if we were all more respectful of each other in regards to gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability. So instead of listening to the cringe, I'll file this under education and guidelines. Keep waving the flag, someone needs to.

  5. Julia, unfortunately, you seem to have totally missed the spirit of Annie's point. And you are wrong—as Stefanie notes, "idiot" is an early form of "retard"— I believe the phrase used to be "village idiot." Urban Dictionary (not that its a respectable source, though it is a popular one) sadly lists the definition as "retard" (along with George W. Bush, but I'm not going there, and come to think of it I'll email Urban Dictionary). What is so wrong with imploring people not to name call? Annie isn't saying this will happen. NOBODY is saying this will happen. But with awareness, hurtful words like these might be less of an issue.

  6. Julia:

    I would like to get people to think before they insult people. But if that isn't going to happen and if they find the list that I linked to too tame, I would much prefer to see profanity used than ableist language. At least it is equally offensive to all types of people and not a slur targeting a specific demographic.


  7. If I'm going to consciously call someone a name, which I don't do on an everyday basis because I'm reasonably mellow and don't get angered easily, I take off the gloves and go for F-ing A-hole, frankly.

    If you're gonna jump in, may as well dive into the deep end. And unless there's a medical diagnosis for the F-ing A-hole term that renders it a disease, infirmity or condition, we're not going to see a campaign to end that term--it's just too popular.

    I've already weighed in with my opinion about words vs. intent and the PC culture, so I won't reiterate. But anyone looking for a substitute might want to try that one on--it'll spice up a dull conversation, at a minimum.

  8. As a parent, a teacher, and a human being with a heart for others, I think her suggestions are great tools! How many times a day do we say things without thought of how it might make others feel. (Even if we are poking fun at ourselves)
    I have always felt that we have to choose to make a concerted effort to help our children become who they are supposed to be and not let words define them. Kera:)

  9. I have also been campaigning. I have been asking people to leave retarded as the medical word it is intended to be and to choose better words to describe your own mistakes or clumsiness.

  10. I tend use the word retard very often & without thinking before I speak. Thankyou so much for this post. I found it quite helpful.

  11. I spent 10 years in a Public School teaching Special Needs kids of many kinds. Loved them all to death, but my favorites were a group of Middle School teen boys. They each had various versions of the Learning Disabled/ADD/ADHD label (hate labels!), and in today's terms probably a full fifth of my 25+ boys would have fallen on the Spectrum somewhere. My boys weren't dumb, they just struggled with finding the way that they assimilated information best.--- Today, my husband and I homeschool our 4 kids (3 teens and an "almost a teen") primarily because of my experience with other educators' responses to my boys. --- The shove over the edge for me was the day when a teacher, within close earshot of my boys, said "they are all a waste of good air---keep'em in YOUR (my) room!"--- The pain and damage induced by that educator on those kids was irreparable. My anger and indignation over that comment made an impression on the boys...but nothing could undo what she said. Words count. Names and labels stick and anyone in the habit of using them needs to realize that the damage they do by using them, even once, has long term repercussions on a child...later adult. Thanks for posting your Alternatives. Well done!

  12. Just found your blog through Erin's blog :)
    We just adopted a little girl from Ukraine and she has Cerebral Palsy. Our youngest has Down syndrome.

  13. Hey, the world isn't perfect. Neither are is actually possible to comment on someone's lack of perfection without causing the world to end.

    I may indeed describe the person who cut me off as "somewhat retarded" as I am commenting upon his lack of mental ability....and am, as well, perfectly comfortable with someone referring to me as "fat."

    It isn't ableist, sizeist, or any other ist. People need a slightly thicker skin, as we are NOT guaranteed freedom from insult in this world. Jeez......

  14. I think the problem that I have with this type of advise is that changing the word (moron, nigger, queer, etc.) doesn't change the negative conotation associated with the word. So then you pick a new word (retarded, black, gay, etc.) and because people still want to use the IDEA as an insult, those new words start to be used in a deragotive way.

    For me, the answer should lie in helping people understand that someone who is different still has worth. Being dark skined, having a different appearance, or a different sexual orientation isn't bad. Being disabled isn't good, but the disability doesn't take away the disabled person's innate worth.

    I'm not sure if that's what Annie is trying to say. Certainly a first step is teaching people that 'retard' isn't an appropriate insult. But I think it goes beyond that, and changing the language alone won't change the problems.

  15. I think that the "r" word is awful and mean-spirited and if you know it offends people, then what justification is there to continue to use it??? But most importantly, if for some unbelievably ridiculous reason, you can't stop using the word, then make sure you don't use it in front of your kids - at least that way the word will be eradicated by the next generation, who will hopefully be a little (or a lot) more pc and kind and sensitive than we are. I don't ever use the "r" word (I think I did as a kid but I can't for the life of me remember the last time I even "thought" that word). If I ever heard my kids use that word, I would go ballistic, just as I would if I ever heard them use a racial slur.

  16. Thicker skin or a kinder heart?? I know what I'd rather have and what I will teacher my daughter to have as well. We opt for a kinder heart in this house and it's a shame that apparently not everyone does.

  17. Karen:

    Yes - I agree. We need to do both. Absolutely.

    However, there are people who would never dream of doing anything hurtful to a person with a disability, but that do not realize the hurt that this word causes. It is those people that this message is aimed at.

    Does that make sense?


  18. Great post! I love that you identified the various ways people tend to use the "r" word as most discussions about this only focus on people using it as an insult/slam. Thanks for offering a practical "how to" that cuts through philosophical/ethical debates and keeps things clear and simple.

    That being said, I can understand what Julia said in the first comment, as people using the "r" word in this way tend to not be the type of people who care about insulting others.

    The best substitute I've found for the slang/insulting use (i.e. "that's/he's/I'm r$%&*@#$") is:


    It seems to work for several different reasons:
    1) It's phonetically satisfying to say as the combination of the r and the d give it some punch when you say it emphatically

    2) It can be said with much the same intonation as the "r" work making it an easy sub into sentences you'd normally use

    3) Plus, if you start the old word and catch yourself, you can switch to the new one with only a little bit of a stretch.

    I've never been one to use the "r" word a lot but when I've asked friends to not use it and suggested ridiculous as a substitute they've reported that it's a great alternative and that using it helped them break the habit of the old word.

    **note: I've never heard of any -ist connotation attached to ridiculous and therefore feel it to be a friendly alternative but if I'm wrong and it is based on something objectionable, please let me know! **

  19. Annie,

    OK. That makes sense to me. I can see how that could happen. :)

    And chapeske, I like the idea of ridiculous. The base word is ridicule, as in to make fun of!

  20. I have a dear friend who is pretty picky about what words she uses. For example, "hate" is off-limits. She just has one insult word, and applies it to everybody she needs to put in their place across the whole spectrum: "Bucket-head". I nominate it for the replacement insult list. :-)

  21. Interesting discussion! In my work with people with disabilities I've always used people first language like that described in the "Way with Words" link. I've recently learned that many individuals in critical disability studies/disability rights advocacy, etc. actually prefer the term "disabled person" vs. "person with a disability" and many find the term "special needs" offensive (people with disabilities are not special). I feel like people first language is probably the safest bet, but otherwise have a hard time staying on top of what language is appropriate.

    I'm guilty of using the r-word, especially in the context of 3. and sometimes 4. and 5. of this list - I'm very conscious of it and trying very hard to eliminate it (and the derogatory use of "gay") from my vocabulary. It's challenging but so important.

  22. What a great piece. I don't often use the word but when I do, it is completely unnecessary, I shall make better attempts to eliminate it.

    oh and BTW, Dyslexia is spelt incorrectly

  23. I'd love to hear folks honest opinions. What is your opinion about using the word to describe inanimate objects. for example, to criticize a sporting goods industry with a title such as "is the development of snowshoes retarded?

  24. "Jenny gets an extra 30 minutes to do her exam because she has [an intellectual disability, a learning disability, or the name of the actual disability if relevant - e.g. dislexia, down's syndrome]").
    1. Dislexia is spelt Dyslexia. 2. HOW DARE YOU COMPARE IT WITH DOWN SYNDROME! Anyone who thinks Dyslexia is a form of retardation or handicap has no idea of what it is and should not be in a position of educating or even assisting in the education of children. Oh and your suggestion of alternatives to the R word aren't going to fool anyone sorry they almost as offensive as the R word. How about saying Jenny gets an extra half hour because of a pre existing arrangement? Why even go there? Just don't say anything FFS.


Thanks for sharing!

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