Mar 052013 12 Responses

What the R-Word Means to Me

Today is a day of awareness to Spread the Word to End the Word.

Hardly a week goes by in which I don’t hear the r-word in some fashion—standing on the school playground waiting to pick up my child, in the midst of conversations with friends, at church, on the golf course. While much progress has been made in pushing the word out of our vocabulary, it is still used with a striking frequency. Many would be surprised they even say it, but when you have a child with Down syndrome, your sensitivity is heightened and the word is recognized with greater frequency.

When I hear the word, I often feel bad for the person who spoke it. I assume that if they knew how it made me feel, they would never say it. Most people aren’t that cruel. Their experience simply hasn’t afforded them the understanding to know the power of a word—specifically the power of that word. (See: Down Syndrome is Not My Problem)

It’s difficult to know the weight of one word until you know someone victimized by it.

Ann Coulter can claim it’s just a word, but it means something far different whenever I look into these eyes:


To me, this should not be the face of playground cut-downs. A word used to describe her medical condition should not also be used as slang to mock another person, especially not this person.

It’s ironic—we have taken a group of people who often show us the best of humanity and used them as a symbol of what we are at our worst. Yes, the R-word is a proper diagnosis of my daughter’s speed of learning, but she is also slower to judge, hate, or envy. She is quicker to trust, love, and laugh. (See: 8 Leadership Lessons Ella Taught Me In Her First 8 Years)

She deserves better. If you wouldn’t dare use her first name as a cut-down, what gives us the right to use her medical diagnosis as one?

Many see nothing wrong with it. “It’s just a word,” they say. To me it is more than a word. Yet even if you think it’s just a word, it’s still a word that hurts.

To continue to use the R-word is to willfully choose a word which inflicts pain to others.

The R-word hurts. It hurts at varying degrees for different people. I’ve heard mothers describe it as a sharp dagger. Tears immediately flow when the word is heard. For me, the word isn’t like a dagger. It’s more like a sting. It’s a slight reminder of my daughter’s diagnosis, what makes her different, and the struggle she will always face, in part, because of her limitations, and in part, because of the bias of others. (See: How I Told My Son His Sister has Down Syndrome)

It stings, but it doesn’t make me angry. I might get angry the first time I hear it said to her, but when I hear it tossed into conversation in various places it doesn’t anger me. It stings. I generally don’t say anything. I’ve got a pretty good poker face.

If I have a relationship with the person, I’ll wait for the right moment and mention it to them. They always feel awful. I never want them to feel awful. I want them to be aware and to change. They always do.

None of us are immune from hurtful language. My daughter is going through a phase of saying, ‘duh.’ I’ll ask her a question and she will look at me and say, “Well, duh.” Ironically, it’s a word I don’t like because of its connotation to someone with a thick tongue who cannot properly speak. So my daughter with Down syndrome is saying a word which I don’t like because I think its insensitive to people with Down syndrome. None of us are perfect.

As I’ve written before, No Words Are Perfect and all of us could do well to be less sensitive. However, the fight against the R-word is not political correctness gone wild. It’s a simple change to our language which can prevent us from stinging some and stabbing others.

If you use the R-word, stop it. Understand the pain it can cause others and find a different word.

If you hear someone else use the R-word, don’t get offended. Don’t get self-righteous. With gentleness and love, share the story of why you do not use the word and ask them to do the same.

For more, see:

Children, Disability, and Abortion

Mr. President, Let’s Protect This Child Too

An Open Letter to the USA Today Editorial Board

choose words

12 Responses to What the R-Word Means to Me
  1. […] ni apresurarnos a decir lo que queramos sin pensar que podemos ofender a alguien. Recuerda, ni tú n...
  2. […] people have fought back against my request that we eliminate the R-word from our language. Instead ...
  3. […] the conversations nor boldly say whatever we wish while not caring who is offended. Remember, you an...

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