Declaring war on the R-wordBy Moira Byrne Garton*
The 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 “rightwards” 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 10, 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 is the parent of four children including a daughter with significant physical and intellectual disabilities. She recently completed a PhD in political science at the Australian National University, and works part-time in social policy and as a researcher.
This article first appeared at www.eurekastreet.com.au/default.aspx