Emma Waverman writes about the chaos of modern family life. She is the co-author of the family cookbook Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them and is hoping to one day finish her certification as a parenting coach. She lives with her three kids, ranging from tween to grade schooler, and husband in Toronto. Emma has written for a variety of national parenting and lifestyle magazines and newspapers. When she's is not making typos, telling you what she thinks, and thinking about dinner, you can find her on Twitter at @emmawaverman. You can contact Emma at embracingchaos@hotmail.ca.

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Should the R-word Be Banned?

My son came home from school the other day and told me his friend Liam had been in a fight. Before I could start with the lectures, he explained that another kid had said the R-word. And Liam punched him for it.

The context is that Liam's brother is developmentally delayed and he is understandably sensitive of throwing around the word "retard". (The lecture still happened about the use of violence and use of the R-word.)

My son understands that using the R-word is offensive. He wanted to know why people still use it if they know it can hurt someone's feelings.

Because people do use it, maybe you say: "Oh, that's retarded!" Maybe the justiciations are that it's slang. It's not intended to hurt anyone. It's just a word.

Liam's brother was born with limited sight and some brain damage. It's not my right to thrust labels on him that demean who he is or what he achieves every day. The other kid probably didn't realize he was hurting Liam by tossing around a word. But he did. And that is why we have to be careful of the words we use.

Words hit like a fist

Words have power. Words that are meant to label people as stupid, losers and failures are hurtful. They characterize people who are different as less than others. What may be a casual word to someone can pack a powerful wallop to someone else which is why disability activist Dave Hingsburger created Words Hit Like a Fist cards.

Labels are thrust upon kids and adults with disabilities every day. I think we can work a little harder to make sure that the R-word isn't one of them.

The Special Olympics created the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign to raise awareness about how hurtful the word retarded is. Over 280,000 people have pledged to stop using the R-word.

If the Special Olympics aren't enough context, check out the video created by mother Ellen Seidman about her son Max and why she is on a crusade to ban the R-word. Need more reasons? Read Redneck Mommy and all the labels her son has to live with.

Would you look into those kids' eyes and call them retarded?

Spread the word, to end the word.

Should the R-word be banned? Do you use it? Do your kids?

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Reader Comments (119)

Thanks for this! I used to be bad for saying retarded...but then I trained myself out of it. If I feel like I'm going to say 'that's retarded' I say 'that's re-diculous.' Ridiculous usually fits in whenever you're trying to say retarded. Same with saying something is 'so gay.' I say 'that's so lame.' Again, usually it conveys the same message. Of course I don't think retarded people are ridiculous or that gay people are lame, and I feel bad that people associate their identity with being something bad. I would be hurt if someone said 'that's so Nicole' when they're talking about something they don't like, so why would I do that to anyone else?
March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole T
I have actually never used the term retarded. I'm not sure why, I don't think it was something I ever thought about. I have never heard my kids use the word, but I am not always with them. They very well may have said it. I took the opportunity on Wednesday to show both of my children some of the blogs and videos that featured the Spread the Word Campaign. I am actually upset with myself for not having taught them earlier that this word is not acceptable.
March 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkaren
Yes words mean something but I think in this case, turning it into an insult is a symptom of a general lack of respect. When I was a kid Mentally Retarded was the new gentler words, but it was soon being used as an insult (In my day it was "MR" spoken as "em are" as a taunt). I think the bigger problem is that people lack respect and will turn anything into an insult.

To me, I never understood why "MR" was a taunt, I thought 'so what?' how is that an insult? Now as an adult, with more in depth understanding of what I somehow knew as a child, I see the word retarded as something to be proud of, someone who deals with big challenges everyday is an amazing person, worthy of kudos and respect. A while back, some comedian or personality made a crack about Special Olympics and got flack for it, not because they used those words but because they were disrespectful of people, who actually are to be admired. I can imagine a PR campaign to show that these people are worthy of respect. I used to see some Special Olympic commercials, they were well done. Something similar. (hmm, it seems disrespect is the in thing.)

It may be time to retire 'retarded' to the archaic section of the dictionary. But a little work needs to be done so the next word doesn't become an insult too. (Even special is becoming an insult.) Or perhaps just take back the word 'retarded', and make it synonymous with courageous. Though honestly, I think we really could do away with labeling kids, leave the labels on the Books.

I teach my kids to be respectful. I avoid labeling kids, (that's my pet peeve), but I will acknowledge the differences that some folks have as just a part of life, probably irritating to them sometimes, but just an everyday thing.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarina
I think the answer to this question is largely dependent upon the culture. Where I live, it is a slang word. It isn't meant to be something directed towards those mentally disabled or even to bring up that disability. The word has evolved into something else other than what it was once meant to be.

But even within the bounds of certain cultures, I'm sure it could be used as an insult in some circles.

I call my husband, weird, freak, retarded, stupid etc all the time (within clever banter, never for real). I would NEVER call someone an insulting name in a nonjoking way, no matter what the word was.

I don't think the issue is as much what the word is as opposed to what it's meant to mean when the person says it.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAl
In my opinion people are way too over-sensitive over stupid things like the 'R word'... i use the word, my friends use the word, and it is most definitely not directed toward those with a mental disability..where i'm from its used as a slang word, ex: 'that party was retarded'...those who are offended by it need to toughen up and find something else to complain about..
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercandi
Rathern than banning it, there are very few things in this world that I believe we should ban. I would rather we inform, educate and inspire people to think about how their language can hurt people.

I work in the field and have a twin sister with a disability so people first lanaguage now comes quite naturally to me. I look at your discription of your son for example and want to put him first in the sentance and take out the "delay" and replace it with a more suiting word (delay implies he will catch up, is this true?). Under normal circumstances I probably would not point this out but instead see that this as an opportunity to teach gently. Very few people intend to be disrespectful, however, it still is. These conversations require finess.

Al, I disagree entirely. When you use the word in a light way with your husband it is still for some unwanted behaviour. It replaces "You're so stupid, clumsy, slow, etc.." Can you imagine if instead of retarded we said "irish" or some other group of people. It would certainly offend a lot of people regardless of the playful intent behind the word. Better yet imagine if everyone you knew started using your name to mean the same thing. Now imagine that your entire life and somehow extended to other people around you.

The culture of people with disabilities is still very new and starting to grow. Self-advocates are just starting to pop up to explain just how that word has wounded them throughout the years.

Thank you for the article, it was a nice read! Here is a link people might like to go to read more about people's first language:

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal
Im not saying the R word is well used... but I am saying that it seems as though everyone with a 'cause' is quick to rally and say 'the word should be banned' . Freedom of speech - a constitutional right in any country. Just because YOU dont like it, doesnt mean people do not have the right to use it. GET OVER IT.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralternatives@live.ca
I agree. Words are not the problem - people are.I dont like the word Skinny... because Im slim...Fat people dont like the word fat....People who are not brainiacs dont like the word dumb...etc etc etcAre we to start censoring the entire dictionary?

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLemons and Limes
What we are lacking is proper education when it comes to the definition of words. I'm sure you can take any word and use it in a derogatory fashion. In this day and age of texting and multicultural lingo, no wonder no one knows what words mean! Even the "N" word is taken completely out of context. That word has nothing to do with the colour of your skin, it's all about a persons behaviour, attitude and character. But no one knows that today. We should put more emphasis on teaching our kids (and ourselves) what the words in our English language mean, rather than allowing the minority who wish to misuse and bastardize those words ruin our ability to use them properly. Like the word 'marriage', I have no problem with same sex couples wanted to have a legal union, but we have no right to re-define existing words to "go with the times". That is why the English language is the most difficult to learn and is so advanced, we have literally thousands of words and each word means something a little bit different. When it calls for it, you make a new word, not change the old.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWendy
Yes... I couldnt agree with you more.Its time that PARENTS took the responsibilty for the actions of their children (which is sadly lacking nowadays). The answer is NOT to ban a word. Personally I do not use the R word. There are so many other similar words, which hold the same meaning, and, are they nonetheless just as cruel? PARENTS.. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR CHILDREN. Everything your child does.. from learning how to cross the street safely at 6 years old, to when they come to maturity, should be taught BY YOU!.. and not mandated by the government or social organizations with an agenda.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShondai
So... can we use ... " AWWW UR SO AUTISTIC"??? or.. should we ban that word too?

Seriously people... get a life. Just because you dont "like" it... lets not carry the cross to the umpteenth degree.

This whole session about A WORD.. is ridiculous.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWTF
I have ADHD I have been called stupid or retarded all my life by employers coworkers etc because of my lack of discepline where concentration is required and yes I spell and write terriby.F#^&ing get over it. The same people will come to me when they have a problem figuring out how to install or fix something. We are all retarded in some way or form others are just not as impacted in there life as much as I have been by my afflictions.Retarded is just a word its the context in which it is used that becomes offensive.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPitbull
I have a son who is autistic and I agree that the R-word is not exceptablein this society it is more a form of ignorance and people should start and educate themselves more. Yes, it may be be true that I am the one who will be most likely be hurt by this type of slang more than my son who can neither speak nor read at 20 years of age but people have to stop sometimes and take a step back and realize and ask themselves "what is normal". Did anyone ever ask themselves maybe he is more normal than the people who has the disrespect in using the R-word and need to educate themselves more on the matter and have more respect for others.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBarb
It's fools and bleading-hearts that give this word any negative "power" you claim it to have. The word, like many others, has a definition that LONG predates any perjorative recently assigned by the common vernacular.Enough talk about "retiring" words. There's been more than enough book burning. Instead, dust off your dictionarys, un-jack your ipods from your heads and start using the damned word CORRECTLY!!
I do not like the word skinny. It offends me. I am very sensitive about my slender physique.Can you please add that word to the banned list?
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSlim
It's fools and bleading-hearts that give this word any negative "power" you claim it to have. The word, like many others, has a definition that LONG predates any perjorative recently assigned by the common vernacular.Enough talk about "retiring" words. There's been more than enough book burning. Instead, dust off your dictionarys, un-jack your ipods from your heads and start using the damned word CORRECTLY!!
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTiredOfDumb
Just because you use the word in a fun way, does not mean it isn't demeaning to people who have a disability, or who are related to someone with one. I think the point of the "spread the word to end the word" campaign is to alert people that it is powerful word. If you go to the sites I listed in the post, you will hear people in their own words saying how much the word hurts them.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmma Waverman
I happen to think that respecting other people is not a cause, but a way of living. I respect your right to use demeaning words, but after reading the words of the people it hurts -- is that really how you want to talk to other people?
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmma Waverman
As a mom to a sweet girl who has Down Syndrome, I find this word is used inappropriately all the time. It is usually used to ridicule someone or something and insinuate that the person or action is stupid. Please see my recent blog post about this:


March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWarrior Mom
Interesting that you feel the word 'lame' is appropriate as the dictionary defines it as a person or animal who is unable to walk, normally due to an injury or illness. Lame, or spaz (as in spastic), were once medical terms that have been reclaimed by the next generation as slang. It is incredibly hypocritical of you to vilify those who use retarded when a generation ago the word you use to replace it, lame, would have been just as offensive.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelly
Whats next?How many other words do we have to ban just to please a few politically offended arses?If I do this one gets offended if I do that another get offended enough is enough with this crap.Not because a word can be use in many context means it as to be ban.Why dont you start your own village of politically correct arses that way no ones will offende you.Hell no wonder I hate living with society with their will to change every body to their liking.Its a freaking word get on with it as for that kid who was offended by the word RETARD RETARD RETARD it was ment for him not his brother so what he did was assaultede another person.Did the kid new about his brother?Probably not so the hell with you all who think he as all the right to assault others.English is not my main langage so grammar police can shut up.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKhrum Dman
I am more offended when people say things like "R-Word", "N-Word", "F-Word"...stop making me say the "offending" word in my head!It's just a word - the only power a word has is the context of it. Innocuous use of a word like saying "that party was retarded" has no power. Saying "look at that retarded person" is horribly offensive.We need to teach our children, and adults, language and the power of it. Banning a word is ridiculous.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristy
Some words have more than one meaning. For instance, Gay has always meant happy, then it was used to describe homosexual men and now it refers to things and people that are lame (another word that has evolved), in an effeminate way. We need to quit being a society of victims who look upon what is being said from the perspective of how it applies to and offends us and start considering the spirit of what is being said. Besides being called Retarded is only an insult if someone thinks that people who are retarded are worth less than those who are not. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for decorum and we can all do a little better thinking before we speak to make sure we are not putting out foot in our mouth.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraigW
I'm sorry, but words only have power if you decide to give them power. I use the word retarded. There are SO many words that have the potential to offend someone out there. Stop giving words so much power and address the actual people, stop attacking words. Also, I will not be calling it 'the r-word" goodness!!!
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKori
Actually, the "N" word refers to nigger, which is a derivation of the word Negro and has everything thing to do with the colour of the skin. Not that I disagree with what you are saying in principle, but in this example you are wrong.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraigW
I believe it is unreasonable to expect that this word or that word should be banned because it "may offend" someone. Perhaps we should also consider eliminating some hand gestures - who knows we could be offending someone - yes in some countries that little circle you make with your fingers to signal "ok" here in Canada - is an invitation (albeit a vulgar one) to engage in a certain sexual activity in some countries (oooops). Instead I agree with the idea of educating people - and not just the ones who go around blissfully using such words as "retard" along with "crip", "mental case", etc. Let's face it you can pass whatever law or ban whatever word you want - the mindset is still there and that's the real problem. I believe time would be better spent in explaining to the "victim" of such remarks who the real "disabled" person is. "No man can destroy another with his tongue; only himself."
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeb R.
The number of people who don't understand that the word retard has an actual meaning is staggering.

Retard - to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.

An example; People choosing to ban words that might be offesive is a concept that only belongs in socially retarded cultures. An enligtened culture does not choose to retard itself by banning words because of arbitrary offense.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDevon
So if woeds are like a fist just duck. They only have power if you give them power.I'm a male barely over 5 feet tall and I've heard ALL of the sort jokes and laughed at most of them. I am sick that we are raising a geration of easily bruised offspring.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKojak
Another example of how oversensitive and over-reactive our society is, these words are only powerful because we give them power and sadly this situation is just a proxy of the larger racism issue which today is only proliferated by racists themselves because again the words only have power because we allow them to and true free speech will never occur until the rigid thinking and self-victimizing people have fallen on the wayside.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff
This whole discussion is retarded.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe
Actually Craig- your not correct, the 'N' words history goes farther back than the slang/derogatory term its known for in north america. Professional soccer is having issues with this word as some for some of the players this word isnt ment as a derogatory term. It depends on where youre from as to what the word means historically.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterd
This article and the idea behind it are completely retarded! If I say to a 'developmentally challenged person'(p.s. is that offensive?), "You are a stupid retard." Then it is offensive. If I read a boring book in English class and say, "That book was retarted", how is that offensive to anyone other than the author of the book??
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave
It's just a word. People use nigger as an everyday thing, like it doesn't have an effect on them or people around them. I don't even understand why retard should even be brought up as something so serious. It's a word, people call eachother it jokingly or seriously, a vast majority of the time, no one is remotely thinking of a disabled individual, it's just a word. Why even pin retard to disabled people to begin with? They're just like us, heart, mind, skin, everything.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlexis
I admit to using the r-word until my college roommate started working with people with disabilities. Obviously it wasn't a word they were allowed to use and I trained myself to stop using it too. It can be very hurtful to people who are trying to get through every day with dignity.

Now I have a son born with PKU, which if left untreated can cause severe mental retardation. So I use the r-word in its proper medical context to explain his condition to others.

And I hope my children will add this word to the many words it is not nice to say or call another person.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChrisie
You have RICH PEOPLE on TV degrading common person because they want to better themselves.But I dont see anyone complaining about those RICH BASTARDS.Just let hang a KID it looks better right?So instead off bitching at parents start at the top or shut up.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKhrum Dman
I think people are becoming more and more sensitive to things that shouldn't matter. Being truly offended over words like 'retarded', 'lame' or 'gay' tells me that you need to do some introspective thinking and discover why you're hurt by it in the first place. If you have the self-confidence, or the 'gumption', to stand up for yourself and say 'using that word is offensive', then you should have the self-confidence to not be offended by it in the first place.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeta
When we studied electronic ignitions in engineering we would refer to the timing as either being advanced (before top dead center) or retarded (after top dead center) statements of fact, no value judgements.If a child is "developmentally delayed" or "retarded" or has "Special needs" they will be taunted and ridiculed when in mixed schools by other children who fear being labelled the same or similar.Change the words all you like but as long as children are developing at different levels their differences will be noted an commented on by other children and parents.Parents are the worst. Think of the times and contexts that the term "gifted" is now used. People who get upset about this issue are clearly either 'special' or 'gifted'.

PS (satire alert for the 'challenged' groups).
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSP
Why don`t we all just stop saying any words. Wait, we almost have stopped saying anything: Don`t talk to strangers, what a load of crap! Sometime when a stranger says something like even a friendly hi, puts a big smile on my face. They didn`t know I was feeling down but they said hi and that made my day cheery. It seems like every word is offencive already, GET OVER IT!!!!
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOzzy
Hummmmm.Gay is offending to some I get it.Gay in french means a person/s is/are happy so why should one change their language just to please so little?You want to change all French expressions you dont like and for what?Quit being offended for no good reason.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKhrum Dman
I agree with Joe - Get a Life! We are raising a bunch of self centred little shits that have been catered to, spoiled & generally think they deserve a life of entitlement & now I have to be cautious of which word I use in case it offends someone? If you dont like my word usage too bad! While I dont spend my time looking for opportunities to degrade or insult anyone a little bit of thick skin is needed here along with some common sense. As for the morons that think anger is not an appropriate emotion the neurosis that comes from bottling everything inside is why there are so many lunatics around now. Insult, degrade or threaten my family? I'll punch your lights out too & I bet you won't do it again! Problem solved.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaytriker
Yes i agree to become violent to others who mock you for not being the same as them is wrong. probably as wrong as some one with challenged moral and mental skills calling me stupid or retarded for being ADHD,disabled etc.Although at times I know it would feel so right to kick the living s#$% out of some mouth piece who so desperatly dserves it.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPitbull
any word can be manipulated into an insult with tone and inflection. that is why saying something is retarded is not bad in the right setting. if i was trying to be hurtfull i could make "Diffrently abled" sound far more offensive then "retarded" if I wanted to. The point is that most people say "don't be a retard" or "don't be stupid" in a non offensive way. I would never say that to a person who was actualy "Diffrently abled"
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermoose
If any of you have ever problems such as ADHD or other things that made you stand out in a bad way. the words retarded and stupid hurt but not as much as you hurt yourself when others force you to beleive thier bullshit. I have hurt myself far more than anyone idiots mouth could ever do.Dont be hating expecialy to yourself.Ialso feel that people who deal with this kind of abuse have a stronger and less fragile self than those who are supposed to be normal.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPitbull
I think everyone has lost the point. I am always telling my 11 year old son to think before he speaks. He has used all the words mentioned above at one point or another and gives absolutely no thought to what he is saying and how it may affect someone before it comes out of his mouth. It is up to us as parents to educate our children and teach them! As for Daytriker - children only grow up to be self-centred if you allow them to be. More education and respect for all human beings is key! Obviously you don't care about anyone but yourself. Sad.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK
Here here! But also Marina was correct in stating that any word can be used in a derogatory sense, such as; There goes some more immigrants; Look at all the homeless people on the street etc. In addition to being able to add any number of expressive slang words to those sentences. Slang words which in and of there selves are not even derogatory. People are guaranteed to the right of free speech in a lot of Western countries(not Canada) Which is why we are having this discussion...

Personally I dont't give a ***t and I think that anyone that does is an emotional train wreck that needs to be admitted to a sanitarium/mental hospital. Oh, and I have another term that people who don't like the word "retarded" can mull over, Fascist/Fascism. Maybe some supporters of removing words like retard from the english langauge can argue whether they are fascists and maybe take a good long look at their lives and ask themselves if they shouldn't just throw themleves off a cliff to prevent crazy splinter groups of their kind from forming.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron
oh while I may be ADHD my IQ is in the top ten percentile. so do not always assume that someone different is slow.Some people are challenged by differant things it does not mean they are Retarded at all things.Retarded is a stupid inhuman insultive missuse of a legitamate word nothing more nothing less.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPitbull
Wake up Shondai! The Canadian government is the Solely responsible for the the development of a child. ALL CHILDREN ARE WARDS OF THE CROWN! It is the governments job to provide all necessities for canadian children. Not the parents. I do agree with you that it SHOULD be a parents responsiblity for such things. But unfortunately such things will not change soon, if at all. Maybe its time for Canada to have a civil war. Many nations/empires/countries/states throughout history have had a civil war in the 120 - 200 years after forming. Maybe its canada's turn....
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron
Thin-skinned wimps. This is unreal....Developing coping mechanisms is a part of life; kids insult other kids, adults insult too. That is life- you have 2 choices deal with it like you are supposed to and life goes on, or end your life if you can't take a little name calling.

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." I suppose all the pussies in the world, are the ones who cannot understand that simple childhood parable. Try doing some parenting.Words are sounds and mean whatever you let them mean to you. Welcome to life, retards.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBubbs
Nazi's banned many books and literature. Maybe they had a good idea... or maybe the people that want words like retard removed(somehow) from the english langauge should be asking themselves if they are more like nazi germans or italian fascists. It's one or the other cause they sure as hell are not people who respect the freedom of speech or the right to raise children without daily interference from the state.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteraaron
I agree that we should be more sensitive to others and not say things that may offend, however we cannot ban words. There is freedom in our country and it cannot be denied. Teach our children to love and be kind, teach them not to be selfish. In a world where 'me' is number 1 this can be tough. Unfortunately we need to be a little thicker skinned when it comes to words that other people use. I myself was a fat teenager and let me tell you the cruelty that this world deposited on me! They say that is different because I could change my ways and be thin....in any case my point is yeah I know what mean words do to people.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersusan

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