You're an Ava – what?

AvatarBy Brian Skotko, MD, MPP, Clinical Genetics Fellow

Some enthusiasts of the popular film by James Cameron are calling themselves “Avatards.” They are not the first to coin the term. The term has existed for a number of years, self-applied by fans of an animé series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. For many people with disabilities, the term bears chilling echoes of another word—the “R word”—that has come to haunt them in recent years.

While health care professionals are accustomed to the clinical terminology “mental retardation,” music artists and movie moguls have since popularized its pejorative playground usage. Ben Stiller mockingly used the “R word” in the 2008 movie, Tropic Thunder, and the Black Eyed Peas originally named one of their hit songs, “Let’s Get Retarded.” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has come under fire recently for his use of the term “f—ing retarded” during a strategy session with White House staffers.

In response, thousands of individuals with disabilities have launched the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, spearheaded by the Special Olympics. Celebrities like John C. McGinley, the popular Dr. Cox on Scrubs, says that “hearing the ‘R word’ makes people with intellectual disabilities—and those who love them—feel like less valued members of humanity.”

Even the government is taking notice. Last year, Massachusetts officially renamed its former “Department of Mental Retardation” as the “Department of Developmental Services.” A federal bill is currently working its way through Congress hoping to remove “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal laws, replacing the term with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability.”

So, while the enthusiasts of Avatar have chosen a peculiar name for themselves, our patients with disabilities have not. Their voices are now united asking all of us to think carefully about the next time we are tempted to use the “R word.” You can join the more than 50,000 people who have pledged support here.

Read this Boston Globe editorial on the necessity of purging the “R” word.