Why is the R-Word so Offensive?


If you’ve been using the R-Word for a while now, it might be drilled into your vocabulary as a synonym for “stupid” or “idiotic”. You might not mean it in the literal sense, but ignorance isn’t a fair excuse. Even if you don’t personally know someone with an intellectual disability, using the R-Word in a conversation communicates the message that you are okay with this type of language, and that everyone else should be comfortable with it as well. Once this ideology spreads, it could eventually be used in front of the wrong person.

“It hurts and scares me when I am the only person with intellectual disabilities on the bus and young people start making ‘retard’ jokes or references. Please put yourself on that bus and fill the bus with people who are different from you. Imagine that they start making jokes using a term that describes you. It hurts and it is scary.”

– Joseph Franklin Stephens, Special Olympics Virginia athlete and Global Messenger

The correct terminology to use is “intellectual disability“. This means that the person has limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors. Intellectual functioning, or IQ, refers to a person’s ability to learn, reason, make decisions, and solve problems. Adaptive behaviors are the necessary skills for day-to-day life, such as being able to communicate effectively, interact with others, and take care of oneself. Intellectual disabilities are thought to affect about 1% of the population.

Believe it or not, there are many older advocates who fought for human and civil rights back in the 1960s and 1970s who still say “mentally retarded” — even when talking about their own family member! It might not offend everyone, but it’s not worth the risk of hurting someone else who sees the word as derogatory or dehumanizing.

So, which word should you use? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) uses “intellectually and developmentally disabled”, with the acronym of IDD. You could also use the name of the specific disability, such as Down syndrome or Apert syndrome. Better yet, how about you use the actual person’s name? If his name is Joe, that should work just fine.

The R-Word still might be “just a word” to you personally, but there’s no reason that you should willingly hurt someone just because you don’t understand it or agree. No one is asking you to do any favors–it’s simply a matter of respect. That’s the only R-Word you should be using. So the next time you’re having trouble finding a word to communicate something that’s foolish, ridiculous, or illogical, you should consult your new best friend: It might take some effort to replace this word from your vocabulary permanently, but it’s certainly worth it.

The R-Word
When is it okay to use the word retarded?

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Jessica Dolnick sets up many of the merchants that you see on, and through extensive research and personal experiences, writes about them in the We-Care blog. Jessica has always been passionate about the nonprofit sector–before working at, she organized benefit concerts, volunteered at her local hospital, and raised over $50,000 for her alma mater. Jessica holds a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in psychology and communication and a minor in education from the University at Albany.