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. Greg Kuhn Reply

    I think this is a classic example of a way that we can think of others first. I have gown up in an age where this word is used as a way to make a jab at others…mainly your peers on the playground. However, I do catch myself, out of habit I hope, slipping it in even at the age of 36. I do have a little selfish frustration with referring to certain words as the “this word” or the “that word” as we have these conversations, but I understand the reasoning. So…having somewhat vented the selfishness in my heart, I do sincerely believe and know that God charges us to think of others first. This is an area where I know I can be more diligent and I do believe too, that if I seek to change this about myself, it will bless others and help me grow closer to God as well. Thanks for the reminder Kevin, I hope I don’t sound like a completely selfish brat…unfortunately I still am in many ways. Blessings to you all and thank you for the simple, straight forward reminder. It has changed my perspective…for the better.

  2. Ada Floyd Reply

    That sweet little girl has changed my life and continues to do so every time I see her. I am grateful for the growth I have experienced in the past 8 years 🙂

  3. Becky Fouts Reply

    Kevin, we have attended your church and knew about your precious angel. We are the parents of a special needs child. Sarah was born with forceps which caused brain damage plus was in birth canal too long and had a stroke. I have tried to do what you say by asking people to please be aware and not say this word. I have had to talk to several teachers in VB about this as they have said it in classrooms. Sadly, they all say there is nothing wrong with word. I am one who feels the dagger. Life is hard for Sarah and us. I so often feel discouraged. Thank you for this message.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Becky, thanks for the message. If someone says there is nothing wrong with the word, remind them of my statement: “we don’t get to choose what words mean to others but we do get to choose of we use them or not.”

  4. Lori Allmendinger Reply

    I also have a child with Down Syndrome. So hearing someone use the R word is very upsetting to me but more so to her twin when she hears other kids at there school use it. Her twin does not have downs and she is very protective with the one that does.

  5. […] ni apresurarnos a decir lo que queramos sin pensar que podemos ofender a alguien. Recuerda, ni tú n...
  6. Robert Winkler Burke Reply

    How can you justify your resentment, and desire to control others through PC (Politically Correct) Language Control? If it is good for you to resent others using a word, then is it good for PC folk further left than you to shut down the Gospel because it causes resentment and pain in them?

    Figure it out, sir, you have resentment which is un-forgiveness! You resent having a child of special needs? Don’t go left on this with PC insanity, because PC-ism is from Communism, you know? Bad to go so left on this issue, and bad that you teach that it is okay to resent. Don’t teach this to sheep! Ever!

    Granted, no one wishes ill upon the handicapped. However, sir, you have no right to take away freedom of language, else it redound upon you and the Gospel. The Gospel frees people up, yet you choose a leftist issue that enslaves people in division and resentment and justification for endless resentments that divide people and enslave their minds unto leftist insanity.

    You need to forgive God for delivering you a child with a handicap, and ask your sheep to forgive you for teaching them to be resentful about the “R” word… and you would do well to grow up.

    Ask yourself: Does Christ-in-You inhabit a PC world? Does Christ resent the “R” word? Does Christ line up with PC Communism, where folks would take your “RESENTMENT” approval and use it back on the Gospel? What is good for the goose is good for the gander, and you keeping resentment brings nothing good, sir.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Robert, I’m not trying to control anyone. You are free to use the word. You are always free to be insensitive, rude, and intentionally harmful. I will long fight for your freedom to use the word, but I will also appeal to your common sense to choose better. Sadly, that appeal has failed.

  7. Robert Winkler Burke Reply

    You want to restrict language, not believing it redounds back unto your profession. Congress shall make no law restricting… yet this post is you making law to restrict free speech. Figure it out. And you say I don’t get it. You, not I, are against free speech. I am for free speech. That is freeing. Communism is PC, and restricting of speech. Yet you defend not free speech, but the restriction thereof… and can’t see it renouncing back to you!

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Robert, I do not want to restrict speech. I want people to freely, wisely, and willingly choose better speech. Based on all your other comments on other posts, I would bet you and I would both be happier if you would find another site to read. This one clearly is not beneficial to you.

  8. […] people have fought back against my request that we eliminate the R-word from our language. Instead ...
  9. […] the conversations nor boldly say whatever we wish while not caring who is offended. Remember, you an...

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