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Declaring war on the r-word


'Ban the r word' logo, giant r with a red line through itThe Australian community has made encouraging strides to address abuse of a racial or sexist nature. It is time to jettison other words in our lexicon that invoke hurt and exclusion to marginalised people.

Earlier this month in New York City, Councillor David Greenfield proposed to remove the term 'mentally retarded' from City publications. The words 'developmentally disabled' would be used instead, due to widespread derogatory use of the word 'retarded' in the United States.

Indeed, a particularly appalling social media incident in the US election campaign last year was a Twitter message by high-profile conservative commentator Ann Coulter. During the presidential candidates' debate on 22 October, Coulter tweeted, 'I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.'

Following its denunciation, she argued the r-word is a long-term colloquialism for 'loser', and labelled protestors as 'aggressive victims', compounding her offence.

One protestor was John Franklin Stephens, a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome who addressed Coulter's pejorative language in an open letter. He understood Coulter's intention to disparage the President by 'linking him to people like' himself, because many see comparison to someone with intellectual disabilities as a smear.

He went on to suggest three alternative interpretations of the 'r-word'. It could imply President Obama found ways to succeed despite bullying; was thoughtful in speech; or possessed a worldview of life 'as a wonderful gift', despite susceptibility to poor social outcomes. Stephens embraced these interpretations.

While Australia has assorted derisive terms for people with disabilities, anecdotally, local use of the r-word is prevalent, perhaps prompted by continuing American cultural influences. Variations substitute prefixes: rancorous online Australian political debate regularly mocks 'rightards' and 'leftards'.

These are not the only minority group descriptor idioms used to injure. 'Mental', 'psycho' and 'gay' are often employed as negative replacements. Labels such as 'bogan' and 'westie' buy in to class stereotypes based on geography, income and education, while remarks about 'senior moments' reflect ageism.

All are bigoted terms devaluing those they reference, and gloomy evidence of defining people by 'otherness'.

The language of exclusion is used so frequently that many do so without thinking. Understanding its affront to those with intellectual disabilities, autism, or physical disabilities; mental illness; a homosexual orientation; and those that love others fitting these descriptions leads to more prudent word choices.

Ideally, I endeavour to point out the degrading effect. Nine times out of ten, people don't mean to offend. They don't realise that for people relating to a particular term, hearing others use such words negatively can be intimidating. I find that most people, when challenged, apologise and undertake not to do so again.

Other times, it is more difficult to call people to account. I've heard work colleagues refer to people, processes or decisions as 'retarded', personalities as 'on the [autism] spectrum' or 'a bit special', and behaviour as 'OCD' or 'schizo'. I hoped, perhaps naively, that my silence and discomfiture would adequately express disapproval.

In contrast, after countless reminders, a friend announced on Facebook that she would defriend anyone who used or linked to such expressions. Though some may judge this as heavy-handed political correctness, seeking to eradicate such words from discourse is a natural extension of a respectful, inclusive society.

The Coulter defence of long-term use does not bear scrutiny. The word 'nigger' was used to refer to African-American people for over a century. In Australia, equally offensive words for Aboriginal people were used for decades. Prolonged usage doesn't mitigate indecency.

Certainly, language evolves and words previously denoting one meaning now represent another. 'Idiot' was once an accepted word for people with intellectual disabilities, and became an insult via the 'euphemism treadmill'. Regardless how intellectual disability is described, over time it is perceived negatively because few view those with intellectual disabilities as like themselves, or as offering gifts to their communities.

With around 250,000 words in use, the English vocabulary provides countless adjectives to accurately portray intended meaning. How about awkward, boring, conventional, difficult, extreme, flamboyant, graceful, hapless, implausible, joyful ...? Multiple alternatives eliminate any reason to tolerate terms that cause hurt and offence.

Moira Byrne Garton headshotMoira Byrne is the parent of four children including a daughter with significant physical and intellectual disabilities. Moira recently completed a PhD in political science at the Australian National University, and works part-time in social policy and as a researcher. 

Topic tags: Moira Byrne Garton, social inclusion, Obama, Romney, Anne Coulter



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Existing comments

Isn't this a bit over the top? Certainly, words like retard are awful whenever used. But banning words/phrases like bogan, westie, seniors moment, autism spectrum makes political correctness into a joke. Here are a few more to add: bikie, footballer, Irish, alcoholic ... Much more acceptable than made-up words like defriend. Lighten up, people.

Frank | 24 January 2013  

A superb article Moira. We must all hope be more considered in our use of language.

KAM | 24 January 2013  

Words are immensely powerful Moira and I do agree with the general points in your article. One word of caution however: context can be important. In his masterpiece poem, 'Harry', Francis Webb uses terms such as 'moron', 'imbecile' and 'mongol'. The poem was written in the 1960s and I would challenge anyone to read the poem and not be profoundly moved by Webb's craftmanship and tenderness. Having said that, there are many in our sorry world who use words to demean and destroy and this needs to be met with the strongest disapproval.

Pam | 24 January 2013  

Thank you, Moira! As an inclusion educator I, too, advocate inclusion. I’m influenced by e.g. Rita Cleveland (ACU) and her work to create a ‘complex community of learners’ in schools; and Dr Martha Burns (US) who uses terms e.g. ‘difference’ not ‘disability’ or ‘non-typical’ learner as different to ‘typical’ learners. The Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, expressed his concern yesterday on ABC’s The Drum that the general community has a low expectation of people with disabilities. Perhaps this is related to the language out there! As a general rule, at my seminars for classroom teachers and other school personnel, there is time to reflect on our inclusive practices and language with positive results. I always encourage one goal to make difference by a specific action when back in the school environment.

Robert | 24 January 2013  

In the town where we raised our children there was a psychiatric hospital named Hobson Park. They adopted from their schoolfellows the insulting word for low-status people "Hobbos".

Michael Grounds | 24 January 2013  

'Retard' is a verb. The noun is 'retardation'. To describe a person as a retard is a bastardisation of the most usable and flexible language in the world. We no longer teach the beauties of this language in our schools and have allowed the erosion of English by the banality of the American influence, largely a literary laziness. Even sadder, we rush to change meaning in the name of myopic political correctness with its lack of any inspiration in the literature of its expression. By the way, Robert, what on Earth is an 'inclusion educator'? And does the American you quote (Dr Martha Burns) have anything to contribute on any debate regarding the English language when she uses 'non-typical' instead of the English 'atypical' to describe one learner as different 'to' another. It is, of course, impossible for something to be different 'to' rather than 'from' another, in the same way that it is impossible to separate one item 'to' another. We could spend a hell of a lot of time getting the English correct and that might save the endless hand-wringing of the culture of political correctness and the elimination of the bastard American pretence at the use of language.

john frawley | 24 January 2013  

For years, I have campaigned actively against the use of the word "schizophrenic" as a metaphor for some one who is ambivalent about a matter or who cannot make up their mind. Mostly I have been ridiculed for my pains. Firstly the metaphor is wrong. People confuse schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder and thus perpetuate ignorance. More importantly, for all the reasons that Moira points out, it demeans the people who are very truly ill; it perpetuates misunderstanding about the illness; it assumes a superiority on the part of the rest of the community that is not justified. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have seen politicians or academics use "schizophrenic" so carelessly. I would have enough money to fund a research fellow at the Schizophrenia Research Institute.

Sheelah Egan | 24 January 2013  

Thank you, Moira, for reminding us that helping each other to speak and act like decent human beings is an ongoing campaign, not a single battle. We win a few. lose a few. I don't think anyone would still use the word 'spastic' as it was pejoratively used by children forty years ago. I'm horrified that 'retard' is used by educated adults in public conversations. I do think that perhaps it's useful to distinguish between words and phrases people jokingly use about themselves, and insulting language used about others. I'm a westie with bogan moments as well as senior moments. I hope that by occasionally and happily using such phrases I'm helping to change perceptions. Calling someone 'black' used to be an insult - now we perceive that being black is not just acceptable, it's terrific!

Joan Seymour | 24 January 2013  

Thanks Moira for a thoughtful and loving article. I have a son with Down Syndrome and heartily agree with your remarks.

Jean SIetzema-Dickson | 24 January 2013  

Whilst I agree language influences thinking and that therefore there's a case for periodically expunging/discouraging particular words or usages, nevertheless, the very process of review in many cases simply highlights or reinforces the undesirable meaning.

Words aren't the culprit here. To say someone is mentally or emotionally retarded is perhaps an inelegant phrase, but it's only inaccurate when used indiscriminately of persons with whom the speaker merely has a difficulty. The fact is it might very well describe very meaningfully someone who has the body of a 25 year old but clearly behaves enduringly and functions like a 5 year old. It is natural to expect that an adult will have progressed beyond the stage of tantrums, rages, and reactions that are characteristic of toddlers. The word "retarded" fits the non-alignment here quite well, for the layperson. I fully acknowledge that many people we otherwise consider "normal" can in fact be manipulative, amoral, sociopathic and childish, and that in some way, though less obviously, they too are "retarded". (That is, retarded compared to an ideal or healthier norm). When you replace one word with another with more syllables, the meaning doesn't necessarily follow. Simpler is often best.

smk | 24 January 2013  

4-5 years ago the tables were turned when it was caring, progressive, pro-Obama left-wingers who were mocking Sarah Palin for giving birth (or, depending whose blog you read, faking giving birth) to a Down syndrome child, and right-wingers like Coulter (her allies, at least; can't remember if she herself commented on it) who were crying unfair. Hypocrisy all around. Interestingly, intellectual disability is one area where right-wingers are more likely to favour social taboos (or even legal prohibitions) on discrimination, since the caring, progressive left-wingers who are so solicitous for the rights of the actually born are also the most gung-ho for pre-emptively executing the disabled in the womb. ("Restrict abortion? Are you insane? What if you found you/ your partner was pregnant with a disabled child?"!!)

Rod Blaine | 25 January 2013  

Moira, thank you for such a beautiful piece of writing. Regardless of how "inclusive" we each think we are, having the opportunity to read an article such as this from time to time reconnects us to the common ground we share with everyone, regardless of abilities or disabilities. As well as creating a distance from others and assuming we are better than those we label, I think the other impact of labels is to dehumanise the other - we overlook or even forget that those we label are human beings like ourselves regardless of their qualities and abilities and no one needs to be insulted or humiliated by name-calling. With school about to commence soon for the 2013 school year, this article would be a wonderful resource for school staffs to read and reflect on as they prepare to work with our young people and help them develop their values and relationship skills. Thank you again.

Carmel Ross | 25 January 2013  

Despite Moira's rational and well-argued case, it's a pity that, once again, discussion of an issues get's bogged down by some commenters into a banal left/right divisive debate on abortion. I think that type of thinking is retarded.

AURELIUS | 25 January 2013  

Aurelius, this is Eureka Street, for heaven's sake (no pun intended). This is a forum where meditation about morning dew on a leaf, or reminiscences about a Mass in Corfu in 1964, can segue into a denunciation of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, or a call for more funding for homeless shelters. If you think my comment was "banal" and "right [-wing]", might I suggest you actually read it, not skim it, after googling the correct use of apostrophes. You will see I was critical of Coulter as well.

I do find the whole "Of course you can abort these blots on the human gene pool while they're in utero" hard to reconcile with the view that, once actually born, people with disabilities are entitled to a wide range of rights.

Rod Blaine | 25 January 2013  

As a parent of an autistic child, I am equally aware of the use of derogatory words. Moira's statements “I've heard work colleagues refer to people, processes or decisions as 'retarded', personalities as 'on the [autism] spectrum' or 'a bit special', and behaviour as 'OCD' or 'schizo' certainly rings bells. I agree that “seeking to eradicate such words from discourse is a natural extension of a respectful, inclusive society.”
The state high school kids down the road from the Catholic school my autistic child attends regularly and in full voice refer to the latter school’s children as “retards” on the bus – although it is not a “special” school, but one for those who struggle with school work. I think the main offence is identifying the person with the adjective, making the adjective a noun, thereby dehumanising the person. For example, calling someone a "retard" or "an autistic". Calling them an "autistic person" or a retarded person" at least recognises that they are people, although "retarded" has now become an offensive word.
It is true that we find people with intellectual and social impairments in the workplace and need to deal with them. It is only natural that their colleagues may find them difficult to deal with and get exasperated with them occasionally. It can be difficult to avoid the occasional outburst, hard as they try. Even as a parent, I certainly find my autistic child difficult to deal with. But that is no excuse to use offensive words.

Frank S | 27 January 2013  

Well Rod Blaine, the only way to respond to your point - is that nobody has commented here (and neither was it mentioned in the article) that it's OK to abort foetuses. I have yet to read an article in ES that does not follow Catholic teaching on the dignity of the human person as the fundamental basis of all human rights - and your advice about the correct use of apostrophe's wasn't just banal, but fickle.

AURELIUS | 28 January 2013  

I wince when I hear someone use the words 'retard', 'gay' or 'senior moment', as an insult or as an attempt at humour, even if self-deprecating. These words/expressions perpetuate stereotypes (e.g. "Old people are forgetful and absent-minded"), show ignorance and a lack of respect for others.

To those who cry "Political correctness!", there was a time when it was OK to call someone preceived as stingy a "Jew" - that would be acceptable to you, would it?

Monty | 28 January 2013  

Aurelius, Rod Blaine, guys! Don't let's have an Apostrophe War! It just diverts attention from the serious issue addressed in the article. However, energised by John Frawley I'm on for a Preposition War. I'm just so bored of otherwise competent writers writing 'bored of'. Now, that's serious!

Joan Seymour | 28 January 2013  

Thanks Moira for a thoughtful and loving article.

cnk guy | 30 June 2017  

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