MA legislators ban the 'R-word' from state laws

By Brian Skotko, MD, MPP, a specialist in Children’s Hospital Boston’s Down Syndrome Program

Brian Skotko, MD, MPP
Brian Skotko, MD, MPP

Let’s applaud together. After decades of advocacy, two words are now banished from our state laws. Last week, Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation that effectively replaced every use of the words “mental retardation” with “intellectual disabilities or disability” in all Massachusetts’s laws. This comes nearly one year after the Department of Mental Retardation was renamed the Department of Developmental Services.

So, what’s the big deal? For years, our society has turned what was once a simple medical term into an epithet of ridicule and bigotry. The Black Eyed Peas originally sang their hit song under the title, “Let’s Get Retarded.” In the 2008 movie, Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr.,’s character mockingly advises Ben Stiller’s character to “Never go full retard.” And, who could forget when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel exploded during a strategy session with White House staffers by calling liberal Democrats “f—ing retarded”?

But these occurrences happen even closer to home.  On a playground somewhere today, a student will taunt, “You’re such a retard!”  In an office somewhere today, a co-worker will make a mistake and muse, “How could I be such a retard?”  And, in a long airport line somewhere today, a passenger will offer the unsolicited sidebar, “This is so retarded.”

For kids with intellectual disabilities, the use of the R-word can be painful and suggest their potential is limited
For kids with intellectual disabilities, the use of the R-word can be painful.

While people might not purposely intend to hurt others with intellectual disabilities, their usage of the R-word comes at the expense of those who do have the medical label. Words have power. And, the most common way people misuse the R-word is to mock their own—or others’—limitations. In doing so, perhaps without even thinking about it, they are affirming that those with intellectual disabilities can’t accomplish much. They can’t succeed. The R-word diminishes expectations and frames a group of people as lesser human beings, with lower capabilities and talents.

Ask someone with Down syndrome or any other intellectual disability how it feels to hear the R-word used in a derogatory way. Many will tell you it makes them feel robbed of their dignity and self worth. They’ll tell you the word stings.  They feel like less of a person.

People with disabilities have decided that the R-word word has been tarnished irreparably and permanently. It’s ready to be retired. My patients—and their families—won’t stand for it anymore, nor should they. Their request to all of us is a simple one: find a different term when we are frustrated and mad. By doing so, we can restore human dignity, respect, and acceptance for those with intellectual disabilities.

National advocacy organizations have declared the R-word as “hate speech,” and even Merriam Webster Dictionary has labeled the term “offensive,” tantamount to the “N-word” for blacks and the “D-word” for Italians.  The U.S. Congress is considering federal legislation, which would ban the R-word nationwide from all general laws.  For our own part, Children’s Hospital Boston has scrubbed our web page clean of the R-word, wherever possible.  My colleagues in the Genetics Division and the Division of Developmental Medicine have also dedicated themselves to avoiding all usage of the term.

And, how about you? Will you pledge to avoid the R-word? Have you talked with your own children about the term? When a colleague or friend next uses the word, will you be willing to say something?

For more information on Dr. Skotko and his work, please visit his website.

  • Donna Narey

    Thanks for the article Brian! This is wonderful!

  • Ismirth

    I think it is good that it is banned from laws, because now it has been usurped by slang to mean something different. I feel that people with disabilities of any kind should realize when the word has morfed to mean something else. Now in common usage in my friend group, it means when someone is acting BELOW THEIR OWN NORM. And we have all had days like that. I feel that if people are not intentionally being malicious that we all need to just accept the fact that it isn’t meant as hateful or degrading and move on. If we begin to police words based on their meaning then we will fall into a 1984 scenario where our dictionaries get thinner and thinner. Everyone just needs to lighten up a bit. Censorship can start anywhere and everywhere.

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