There are three reasons why I don’t like the r-word. First, it is a deviation from the official diagnostic terms in professional arenas. The official terms tend to be cognitive disability, intellectual disability, developmental disability, or in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-Fourth Edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), mental retardation. The r-word is not the appropriate term even for the DSM-IV-TR, since that would be MR. The r-word just isn’t the correct term to use.
Secondly, the r-word for me is rooted in a very disturbing and hurtful history. I have already talked previously about this in earlier posts. In the 1950s mainstream society viewed individuals with cognitive disabilities as individuals who should not be a part of society, perhaps a sign of something that was deficient with the parents. There were some very strong families out there who did not do this, but there was a strong influence to institutionalize children with cognitive disabilities. If you watch many documentaries on this subject, the use of the r-word is prevalent. If one observes the look on the individual’s face as he/she is using this term, it often can say a lot about attitudes and comfort level about being around those with a cognitive disability. It was this attitude that allowed the mistreatment of individuals institutionalized at Willowbrook State School in New York. This included purposefully giving individuals hepatitis in order to experiment with treatment methods, not giving them clothing, feeding them in less than five minutes, and allowing them to sit hours and hours with no stimulation. As in classical conditioning, I believe that the r-word has been paired with all these negative images and feelings so much that just the use of the word brings forth all of these negative feelings and connotations.
Lastly, today the r-word is used as a joke, slang, and a put down and still reflects our society’s overall value placed on those with a cognitive disability. The term again attempts to dehumanize those with a cognitive disability, but all in the name of lighthearted fun. We are told to get over it, it is only a word – oh it is just a joke. I suppose I could try to get over it and lighten up, but I don’t think I ever will because this is my daughter they are talking about. How would you like your daughter to be the butt of someone’s joke? This is a more subtle form of discrimination that other minority groups have felt too. I personally think that if it is clear that certain terminology is not appropriate to use in portraying other minority groups, then this same reasoning should apply to the r-word and its use with those with cognitive disabilities. Just a reminder, don’t forget about March 31st!