The R-word. I get it now.

I always understood why it was cruel to make fun of intellectually disabled people to their faces. But until today, I didn’t truly understand the deeper meaning and damage in using slurs about people as if they were intellectually disabled, when they do or say something stupid.

The first glimmer of this realisation happened many months ago, when a close friend of mine made fun of her other friend for acting as if he should be on the “short bus” (a bus for special needs children). My son is on one of those special transits every school day, along with his class mates with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome and various other conditions. When I heard her comment and other people found it funny, I realised I was very much so on the outside now. They think comparing someone’s idiocy to children riding on a special needs bus, is worth laughing at. They think comparing someone’s idiocy to the behaviour of my son, is worth laughing at. The behaviour he can’t control, the words he can’t say, the actions he can’t perform, are jokes in the able-bodied and able-minded world.

At the time I thought maybe I was just being hypersensitive. I made some comment about there being nothing wrong with riding the short bus, and my friend apologized, and then I felt like the kill-joy. I was the PC-brigade stopping other people having “innocent” fun.

I tried to make sense of this later, by thinking and saying it was just one of those things that only those on the “inside” were allowed to joke about; Jews make Jew-jokes, special-needs people make special-needs jokes. But it didn’t feel quite right, and now I know why. I can joke with my husband about autistic behaviours (my son’s obsession over clocks perhaps, or his happy dance), but that is different from referring to “normal” people’s behaviour as inferior or stupid by comparing it to intellectually disabled people’s behaviour. Because that is short-hand for saying that intellectually disabled people’s behaviour is stupid, inferior or worthy of ridicule. There’s a line being crossed there.

Those sorts of comparisons and parallels reveal ignorance and cruelty. Ignorance, because mental retardation / intellectual disability is not synonymous with stupid behaviour and words; and cruel because even if it was, making fun of people for something outside of their control is like laughing at someone because they cannot walk while you can walk.

I hear it so often from people around me; “don’t be so retarded”; “are you mentally deficient”; “your mum dropped you on your head too many times didn’t she”; “get back on the short bus”; “what’s your birth defect” etc etc etc. All aimed at able-minded and able-bodied people, comparing their idiocy to those who are not.

I can’t wipe a word like “retarded”, out of the english language, especially when it already and continues to have a genuine use. But that’s not the point – it’s not the word that is the evil, it’s the use of the word. You don’t need to remove a word from the english language to change the way it is used. It is clear from the way it is currently used, and the lack of any guilt or worry about that use, that people don’t realise that what they’re saying is beyond offensive, it is – as I have already said – ignorant, and cruel.

So what can I do about it? Well I have a couple of ideas. I can write this post for starters. Done. I can also hold people to account whenever they use the slur (or related terms and phrases) in my presence, or whenever I see them using it online. I might not be able to stop them, but I would have helped to raise awareness that what they’re saying also reflects badly on them, and hope that others reading or hearing my reply will think about the issue and the hurt. I can help it become one of those things people feel bad about saying in public, and think twice about saying in private. I can try.

I feel deep shame that I was one of those children who would stick my tongue in my lower lip and flap my hands, pretending to be intellectually disabled when making fun of my or others’ errors. But at least I know to feel that shame. I can forgive myself it because I was young, and (ironically) stupid, and because adults didn’t tell me not to do that; in fact they seemed to find it amusing too and sometimes laughed along. I haven’t done such a thing in well over a decade, but I have seen other children and adults do it since then. Well no more.

Because I get it now. I’m sorry it took me so long.

The post that finally made me get it was Stuart Duncan’s post, particularly his links to examples of dialogue: Example one, and especially example two. I will also follow his lead by placing the accompanying video at the end of my post. Feel free to share it around, at the very least it will get people thinking:

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12 Responses to The R-word. I get it now.

  1. Carters says:

    Great post Linda,
    I completely understand where you are coming from. It seems, for myself, as I get older, I have started to find things that “normal” people find funny not things that I can laugh about any more.

    It all started for me when my father-in-law died of a heart attack (1 week before Nick & I were to be married). Nick & Bruce (my father in law) were about to go out and then out of the blue Bruce fell against the car, suffering a massive heart, collapsed and died…at 49 years old.

    Since that day I have always felt extremely uncomfortable when people laugh and joke using the words, “You’re going to a have a heart attack” or “that almost gave me a heart attack”. These things make me cringe now..because they are ruthless and awful to someone who hears this as knows someone very dear to them who died of a heart attack . This may seem a little over the top sensitive to some, but the reality is a heart attack is not something one should laugh about.

    As the years have passed I have become more aware of people who have physical disabilites and who are laughed about, in the way you mention. Kids or people in wheelchairs or someone who has a “funny” walk. I think living with a disability or having someone close to you be defined as “not normal” changes the way we act in a more honourable way.

    Another area that I find very difficult is in watching certain comedy shows on TV. One specifically comes to mind – ‘Borat’. The first time I watched this show I found alot of it very funny. It is very easy to laugh at something when it is not “real” and doesn’t affect us in our lives. But then I started to read about the “real” impact of ‘Borat’ on the individuals who were videoed, mocked and made fun of. I started to feel very uncomfortable with the show after I realised how it had completely ruined and wrecked some of these people’s lives after the movie was broadcast around the world.

    Your post reminded me again of how important it is to watch what we say, think before speaking & also to live a life that honours other people rather than dishonouring them…and to raise up our kids to show love and honour to all people.

    Thanks again xxx

  2. stef says:

    I have to police it a bit more and there’s another word that seems to come up with regular frequency in a bad manner, gay. Sometimes just a gentle reminder that I have friends and family members who are gay whom I love is enough to shut people up… but sometimes not at all.

  3. solodialogue says:

    This is a beautiful post. I’ve been in the exact same position. It’s an isolating and physically actually repulsive feeling to me to be in a room where people joke using these terms in complete ignorance of what they are doing. It comes so easily and from people who are pretty close to me sometimes. Once, I gave a link to a post about the R-word to someone who was close and had used it with me. She read it and came back saying how bad she felt and swore she would never use it again – and she hasn’t. It has actually now come home to her how significant the use of that word actually is – it felt good to help her see that. I hope this post does the same for someone who doesn’t get it yet. 🙂

  4. Sharon says:

    Language and culture and vernacular and meaning verus intent. All so complicated and variable depending on where you sit in life. Raising awareness is the best we can do in the hope others may become more thoughtful. I will use those clips to do my own post soon. Thankyou.

  5. KWombles says:

    Good post; the R-word campaign is something I present every composition 2 course, along with blog posts on the subject. If you don’t mind, I’ll add this to my list of articles I direct students to.

  6. Pingback: Blog Carnival: The “R-Word” | my english 416 blog

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  8. Said it perfectly. I also was one of those people who didn’t get it & thought some of the stuff was funny. I don’t anymore. Not remotely.

  9. angelina258 says:

    Yes, yes, and yes. Beautifully written and I whole-heartedly agree.

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