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Why You Shouldn't Use the R-Word

I don't often use my blog as a drum skin to bang. This is my space to entertain myself and share my life with the people who choose to read it. But today, I'm picking up my drumsticks and banging away, hoping one person will hear my words and choose their own more carefully the next time they speak.

I've written before how using the word retarded affects me. I'm tired of hearing people use the word retarded as their go-to word for stupid or defective and I'm even more annoyed with the people who don't understand why I take offence to it's usage.

The word retarded, when used in our modern lexicon doesn't just mean slow any more. The r-word has become a catch-all word for society to use when frustrated, annoyed or ignorant. It's spawned a family of new words: the celebutard, the e-tard, and the ever useful, fuck-tard. The word and it's growing plethora of cousins is all over the internet, filtering into our daily lexicon.

It's not okay.

Like I tell my kids, words have power. Yes, I understand the meanings of words flux and change over the course of time, like currency in modern life. But this should mean that our standards of morality and the words we use to reflect that morality must be constantly examined and reapplied as time passes. It shouldn't mean that our standards be abandoned, bankrupted like an American bank in the Great Depression.

When you drop the 'tard bomb into casual conversation, you are demeaning disabled people and reinforcing the stereotype that mental disabilities are bad and that people who suffer these disabilities are lesser; to be excluded and ignored because they don't know any better. Heck, it's not like they even know what the word means right? Who are you hurting?

You are hurting me. You are hurting my kids. You are hurting everyone who loves someone who has been labeled a retard due to how they look, how they speak or how they learn.

It's not okay to go on twitter and announce that your computer is retarded. Did you mean your computer's operating system is running slow? You might have meant to convey that your laptop is a piece of shit that doesn't work and you desperately covet a new one, but instead you just conveyed your ignorance and your lack of respect for the most marginalized, disparaged group of people in the world.

That pisses me off.

This is a word that carries with it a history of social isolation and exlusion. It's use is a reminder of the culture of neglect people with disabilities are forced to endure every day. By using it, you are reinforcing the idea that handicapped, mentally disabled, people are bad, lesser, sub-human.

It only takes a second for a person to call something retarded, but for my children, for me, it will take a life time to erase the negative connotations associated with the word. In the instance you insert the r-word into your casual conversation, I'm instantly transported to the moment in time I overheard a complete stranger refer to my beautiful child as a retard, or the time my children came home in tears because someone chased them around the playground teasing them about having a retarded brother.

You are reminding me of the endless hours of sitting in a hospital beside my child, worrying for his future, wondering what is going to happen to him when I'm too old or weak to take care of him myself. You are reminding me of all the times I've fought to have him included on field trips and of all the times I've spent on hold with some bureaucrat trying to find funding to pay for a necessary service. You are reminding me of the friends I've lost because they are made uncomfortable by having my child around them.

When you use that r-word, or any of it's colourful and less charming derivatives, you are hurting someone. You are discriminating against a people who can't stand up for themselves and quite frankly, you are pissing me off.

I don't need a reminder of the dismissive attitude in our society towards my child. I live it every damn day. Every time a child hides in fear behind their mother's leg because they are scared of the drooling kid in a wheelchair. Every time a grown adult refuses to make eye contact with me or my son. Every time I hear someone I know tell me it's not a big deal to use the r-word after I chastise them for doing just that.

It is a big deal.

By using that word, whether YOU realize it or not, you are minimizing the struggles of disabled people and their families. You are demeaning, mocking and disrespecting a society of people who have been forced to endure more hardship and struggles than most, simply by nature of their birth.

Oh, and that argument that I'm being to over-sensitive? Too politically correct? Ask yourself how you would feel if you were forced to wear that sign pinned to your back side for others to try and kick.

You can argue that you are taking the word retard back, owning it, but you aren't. Thirty years plus of having the word retard being used in a derogatory manner isn't going to be erased. The stereotype isn't just based on society's careless use of this word, it resides in society's treatment of and attitude towards these special people.

There is no defending the use of the r-word in my world. Defending it's use is not defending freedom of speech, and heck I'd fall on the sword to defend that right, but instead it is the defence of bullies.

That is why you shouldn't use the r-word anymore.

Because ultimately, no one likes a bully.

Go here to read Jumby's story. And remember his face next time you want to drop the r-bomb.

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Reader Comments (301)

Hear, hear. Well said.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArina

Words are powerful and Cannot be erased. Hopefully more people will stand up to celebrate all the different people out there and be grateful we are all unique.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhabanerogal


March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJo


I've read your blog for a long time, as a lurker. I love your stories, your compassion, the hilarity that you bring here. But most of all I love you for being the amazing mom, the generosity of your heart, your love for you family.

Your son is beautiful...I believe this is the first picture I've seen of him. I read his story and I just can never fathom what people who harm children are thinking, it baffles me every day. But my God, look at him now, look how happy he is and how loved he is...truly he and you are both blessed.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJean

P.S. Now that Jumby is an official redneck, I demand more pics!



March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJo


Loving this post.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary

This is Me standing up on my chair clapping, pumping air, and screaming, "You Go, Tanis!"

Use your blog for things like this as often as they need to be said.

Thank you.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMinnie

How sweet and beautiful is Jumby (and Bug and Frac).

How sad that people don't recognize that beauty and the harm their words do.

Powerful post, T.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulie @ The Mom Slant

Oh. My. Goodness. I just read Jumby's story. He is SO LUCKY to have you all. And you him. What a beautiful family you make.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

Fiercely stated and unequivocally correct. The English language is a lexicon of descriptive, useful words. We would all do well to sharpen our language skills and expand the scope of word-power, rather than resorting to hateful, hurtful and ignorant usage of words like the r-bomb.

Somehow, we've come to grips with not dropping the n-word or derivatives thereof in casual conversation (as was common years ago); it's high time we evolved again.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTitanium

Thanks so much for saying this. I posted to my Facebook also because I belong to an ever growing group of mothers of children with genetic disorders, and I know it will be appreciated!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjana

Beautifully said, lady. Your babies are gorgeous and I'd gladly have Jumby over for a playdate if you lived closer; he and Little Child could compare tubes. Much love.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMFA Mama

Agreed. I *wish* it didn't make me nauseated to hear people say that word, but it does, because it's not right. It hurts. Same when someone uses the word seizure loosely and to be funny (guess what? IT'S NOT) and also- the short bus. Not cool when your child is on that bus.

People talk without thinking- we all do! But there are so many words out there- choose better.


For the last five years I have worked as a psychology assistant in a special needs preschool. The psychologist who supervises me taught me this, and likes to question individuals who use the "r" word to describe their computer in the following way:

"Mentally retarded is a diagnostic label for individuals whose cognitive abilities are two standard deviations below the mean, and have impairments in adaptive functioning and have displayed these impairments since childhood. Are you telling me that you computer meets all these criteria, or you perhaps ignorant? Because unless you are delivering some of the hardest news to a family that you have ever had to say, you shouldn't be using that word."

And that is all I have to say about that.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErin

As the parent of a special needs kid myself, I will never use that word in such a way, and I refuse to tolerate the use of that word. I've got 50,000 tweets - you'll never find a single use of the "r" word among them.

Keep fightin' the good fight!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTrish

First, I agree, and while I have been guilty of this myself in the past, I have made a conscious effort to stop. Second, I do however sometimes wonder how far the PC use of words need to go. For example you use "stupid or lame" as examples of what people mean when they use the r word. The definition of lame is "Disabled so that movement, especially walking, is difficult or impossible". I'm by no means trying to criticize your use of it. I think very few if any people are offended when someone uses "lame" as slang for stupid/annoying, while the r word offends many. But, like I said, I just wonder how far this will go. Will "stupid" be considered non-PC to less intelligent (not disabled, just not genius) people someday?

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

YES. Thank you for writing this, Tanis.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRené

I've never been comfortable with this word, and now you have given it more context and reality, which I hope everyone who has the privilege to read your posts uses to help others accept and respect people with disabilities, no matter how overt or discrete.

Both Jumby and Shale are beautiful kids, and lucky to have you as their mama.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhat Girl

Great article! Love it and am RT'ing it via Twitter. Note to you... the friends who "left" were never seriously friends at all. I wouldn't have left you. I hope good things come your way due to this article. It is a great step towards the right direction. I believe there is even a group formed on Facebook for getting rid of the "r" word (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=59439930982&v=info). Power to you and to everyone who promotes your message!!!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlisa

Thanks for sharing Jumby's story finally. That was a toughy to read.

He looks extra adorable with that hockey hair.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebb

Oh dear, Tanis you made me cry. There are so many good words; why are we too lazy to learn to express what we really mean. And when did we forget how to put ourselves in someone else's place, trying to understand.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Agreed! I hate to hear people use that word too. Now I just need to print this post to hand out to people every time they say it.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermaggie

Probably not a very popular thing to say here, but I do think you are overreacting. I don't walk in your shoes and I definitely have not lived your life, but yeah, when I read a blog entry like this I do think it's something you've taken WAY too personal. Your story is wonderful and I think you are an amazing woman for what you've done with Jumby and your little angel. But, that said, what you are writing about here is not the end of the world.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Thank you for standing up for our children. I'm a mom to Gem, 14 yo who's mentally handicapped. I used to say-mentally retarded, till my daughter's therapist pointed out that it really sounds derogatory because of society's misuse of the word. And by no means is my daughter a lesser human in society because of her disability.

Thank you for making a stand! BRAVO!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRos

What a great post.

I have read about the campaign to stop the "R" word and couldn't agree more. This post says why, beautifully.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal

I had to chime back in for a sec - I've heard that point raised as well (the whole "where does it stop?" issue). My response has always been, we'll worry about those words when we get there. Right now, let's just make a conscious effort to not use "retarded" as a substitute for stupid, or annoying, or boring.

Maybe the goal should be for us to be more explicit in our speech; why say "that's so stupid" when we really mean "that's ridiculous" or "that's unacceptable" or "that man is a complete and utter moron"? When we use words that don't say what we really mean ("stupid", "lame", "retarded"), we shouldn't be shocked when people misconstrue our intent. Just a thought, from a part-time grammar ninja ;).

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTrish

Oh Tanis, he's beautiful.

I've tried really hard to not say it, about silly things, like my computer or cleaning up dog poop. Never towards or at a person. Well not since I was a kid. I grew up thinking it was a word to call my brothers, no different then saying dumb or stupid.

There are times I know I have used it (not often though) and I instantly use a different word. It takes time to completely get a word out of your head forever. Each time I hear it though, from me or someone else, I remember your post from last years keynote and instantly despise the word even more.

I think...you keep saying it. Keep telling the world why it isn't okay. You've changed my thinking. Other people will change theirs too.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIssa

I used to be one of those people who threw the r word around. Then I was diagnosed with a mental illness. And all of a sudden, I understood how hurtful words can be. Whether the word you're using is bipolar, schizo, crazy or retarded - you're causing real pain to people who are already suffering enough.

I promise to never use it again.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteramber

This was I word I used just as you said, in various ways to describe idiotic people and or their ideas. However, partially from reading your blog over time, I have realized and corrected my ways. I never used the words with any malicious intent, but that doesn't men the malice wasn't felt by an innocent bystander. Having a father with muscular dystrophy, I certainly should have known better growing up but it was never really an issue with me when I got bullied. I had my own personal issues to which bullies had plenty of material. Perhaps also as a kid my dad could still do things and no one would have known he had anything wrong with him. Even at home though, that word was considered off limits like any of the other typical swear words.

Still, I no longer ever use that word or term in my language, or at least I make a conscious effort to never do so. I also have become the kind of person to speak up when others do. Nothing can be more hurtful than words and I make sure I choose mine more wisely than in my ignorant youth. I hope more people start to do the same.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHockeymandad

THank you for this. People say, "what's the big deal?" but it's a big deal to those of us who have children with special needs. We know they are being belittled and mocked and made fun of. I get those who compare it to "idiot" or "moron" or "crazy" but it doesn't make it sting any less.

Not to mention that those who use those words sound uneducated and classless, in my opinion. Regardless of whether or not they intended to hurt someone with its use.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Domestic Goddess

Twirl those pompoms and tell it like it is. Your my hero.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKellie

I can't agree more, Tanis. If you think something is stupid, call it stupid! Don't label it with something that we are all supposed to accept as being synonymous with stupid.

This also happens with the word 'gay'. Oh, that's so gay! My husband used to say that sometimes. Then one day I said to him, what if our son or our daughter turns out to be gay, and for all those years they heard you calling *them* stupid. That was all it took to stop him.

Words are powerful. Even more so when you put a face to them. Great work here.

Well said, Tanis!

If I could email Rush Limbaugh without having to sever my fingers after doing so, I would send him this post.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermadge

I used to use this word regularly...even tough I HATE to admit it. I have been a follower of your blog for a while now, and realized shortly after I started following that saying that was not a good thing. I am also trying my best to get this into my 10 year old's head. Thanks for this post!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKyleigh

Thank you for this wonderfully written post.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterliz

Beautiful boy, beautiful post. My heart feels full because I know there are people like you in the world. Thank you for sharing Jumby's story and I hope your compassion and love are contagious to everyone who reads this. Wish I could give Jumby a giant hug. He's adorable and amazing, look at that smile!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJo

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! Being a mother to a son with severe learning disabilites as well as severe ADHD this is something I to deal with every damn day and have since he could walk and talk. I find myself fighting with his school on a regular basis for equality for him in everything he deserves to be a part in - can he play sports - no, can he be in the debate club or chess club - no but DAMNIT that doesn't mean he should be excluded from all the other things out there such as the pep rallies and such. He doesn't comprehend that people are making fun of him and constantly believes that if he remains supportive to those he believes are his friends that they will one day return the action. I'm glad to see that there are other mothers that feel as strongly about this matter as i do and i will continue standing the ground here in texas while your doing the same in Canada. I also have experienced the death of a child and trust me no other belief is stronger in this world than believing every child is a true blessing. I know you understand what i mean.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBecky

@Chris, how else would Tanis take such comments about her children? Frankly, her personal experience makes her a far better advocate - and one that more people would be willing to listen to. Too bad you're not one of them.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulie @ The Mom Slant

Thank you for your eloquent post. This is personal to me because I have heard my 13 year old daughter using the r-word. I would rather her drop the f bomb, honestly! I explained to her that if I heard this come out of her mouth again, she would be pealing her lip from her braces! I am going to have her read this post after school. I also feel strongly if you can't tell. Coming from a family of caregivers to the disabled, I have seen the ridicule first hand. And have experienced it for myself because of the relationships I have with them. Once again thank you for opening you heart to us all.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

@Chris, I'm not over-reacting Chris. I'm commenting publicly on a reality I am forced to deal with as are many people.

But I do agree with you on the fact I'm taking this way too personally. Tell me how I could do otherwise when it directly impacts my family, my life?

And for the record, no where in my post did I state the world would end if the r-word isn't eradicated. I recognize there are more important issues in the world other than just the continued demeaning of an entire segment of the world's population.

I'm just choosing to address *this* problem and not world peace.

Thank you though, for voicing your opinion in a respectful manner. You are welcome to disagree with me any time.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRedneck Mommy

That word was on the Absolutely Forbidden list when I was a child, and its casual use still makes me physically cringe. Your son is beautiful, and I'm going to share this post on Facebook in the hopes that people will read and listen.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCory

Bravo Tanis!

I'm so glad to see Jumby has ditched his fake glasses and moustache- what a stunning boy he is. Be proud!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

Tanis, I read your post at Violence Unsilenced. I'm so sorry for what Jumby has been through...I can't tell you how saddened I am by his story. I am so glad you found each other, and that there are amazing people like you in this world.

You are also right about the "r" word. I'm so sorry for every time I so carelessly used it. Thank you for making me see how wrong I was.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJen @ lifelovenwine


March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

Moving, very moving. I enlighten everyone I know. I posted the thing on FB about the campaign to end this word, and a gal I really like commented "guilty". And I said "Well now you know". I corrected my brother. I hope this will be a non issue one day. Everyone should know that differently abled kids rule, and are the purest hearts around ;)

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Well said. I's just a chair dancing goober anyway.
How's that for a replacement? LOL.

I'm going to never again say the R-word.
Wow. Powerful words. Thanks for reminding us.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOne Vlogging Mama

@Trish, your point is completely valid, but it's interesting that you used "moron" as an example.


I'm not picking on you... it's just my day to be an ass-hat. ;)

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIntrepid Eddie

i love you, mama. well said.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Sugarpants

@Redneck Mommy, I respect this reply, but then you called me a boogerhead on twitter. Not cool.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I am guilty of using the f-tard. It's what I call my daughter's father (out of earshot of my daughter of course).

I feel bad, and I don't want to justify my use of the word, however, I know for myself personally, the r- word and all it's derivatives are a derogatory word that I would only use to describe someone in a derogatory fashion. Kind of like asshole (what I feel like right now).

In future, I will find a new word to describe my ex and his shortcomings. Can't say this is the first time my mouth has run off and made me feel like a jerk. Can I just say I'm sorry? And that your little man is just the handsomest little guy!! oh my gosh I love his hair!! and those big brown eyes could melt polar ice caps!!

I'm going to go have a hormonal guilt-ridden crying jag now... excuse me...

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPotty Mouth Mommy

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