No, really. It’s time.
Despite the annual Spread the Word to End the Word campaign and countless efforts by students and faculty to raise awareness, I still hear frequent casual use of the word “retarded” to describe people, behavior, classes, situations and much more.
Why is this problematic? While many people use the r-word synonymously with the word “stupid,” the word has very different historical meanings that influence their implications, and consequently their impacts, in today’s society. Because the r-word has been historically tied to people with intellectual disabilities, creating equitability between this word and insults such as “stupid” and “dumb” among others, perpetuates stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a dangerous and painful way. In order to better support our community members with intellectual disabilities, we need to carefully consider the impact that our language has on others. Not only is the use of the r-word incorrect in many of the contexts in which it is used in daily conversation, but the use of this word is always offensive. While the use of the r-word word may not have a heavy emotional impact on you as an individual, it does have a negative impact on others. Eliminating this word from our vocabulary is a simple change we can make to become a kinder and more accepting campus and community.
While careful consideration of your personal use of this word is a great first step, raising awareness of this issue and informing others of its importance is critical to catalyzing this necessary reform on WIU’s campus. I think one of the largest contributing factors to the continued use of the r-word in our community is the lack of accountability we have towards one another in eliminating it. The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, among others, is extremely beneficial, and we have several organizations on campus that are heavily dedicated to supporting people with disabilities. However, in order to make a full and positive reform, we need to expand this conversation beyond the specific dates each year in which we sign banners, wear t-shirts and discuss the implications of the r-word. Our students need to make a commitment to pointing out the dangers of using the r-word in situations when it may arise, regardless of the discomfort this conversation may bring.
While not everyone who uses the r-word does so with bad intentions, its use always has a negative impact on our community. Additionally, people who use this word in casual conversation once are likely to continue to do so in the future, especially if they do not see the direct and indirect consequences of using the r-word regularly in their vocabulary. Holding other students accountable for their use of the r-word by informing them of its harmful nature can help these students think more carefully about their use of language in the future and hopefully encourage them to discontinue their use of the r-word.
Many Western Illinois University students have already committed to eliminating the use of the r-word, but in order to make a campus-wide movement, it takes commitment from each one of us. We must hold each other accountable, use our language thoughtfully and carefully and spread kindness. Through this simple and positive change, we can create a safer Macomb (and ultimately a safer world) for people with intellectual disabilities.